I was about to help a 5-year-old remove her tricycle helmet when we were cut off by a man staggering slowly down the street. Unnerved by his sudden presence and unusual gait, she stepped back and did a double-take. She stared at him and then turned to me. “He walks strange.”
I smiled but waited a few more beats until he seemed to be out of earshot. In the meantime, I wondered what to say to her. The adult/cynic in me was responsible for my gut feeling that he must be struggling with drugs or alcohol.
But then I considered how useful gut feelings really are in such situations. Annette Funicello complained of being accused of drunkenness when she was struggling with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. I have had enough questions about my sway back and achondroplastic gait to the point where I can only guess how many people aren’t bothering to ask me and simply making their own silent assumptions.
And while some have claimed gossip can be beneficial, it is so often responsible for misinformation and arrogance – the bedrock of ableism.
“He might be sick,” I said to her. “But we don’t know. He hasn’t told us. Sometimes when you’re sick your legs don’t work right. Do you remember when I had a brace on my leg last year?”
She nodded, and then peered once more down the street at him. “I think it’s ‘cuz he’s old! He has a gray beard and lots of old people have gray beards…”
“Some do! Like Santa Claus, right?”
“And my dad has a gray beard and lots of people call him Santa Claus!”
“But [my husband] has little gray whiskers, too, and he’s not really old yet, is he?”
“Does your daddy have little gray whiskers, too?”
“One or two… ”
“Yeah. Do they scratch when he gives you a kiss?”
Neither she nor I will ever be fully liberated from the temptation to silently classify many of the strangers we encounter throughout our lives. But the idea that we can remind ourselves that we ultimately cannot know for sure, and that such conversations need not be engulfed in tones of complacency or pity is an idea worth considering.