Photos by Kara-Lis Coverdale
A wheelchair was the author’s ticket to the mysterious and wonderful world of the handicapped stall.
My brother has hemiplegic cerebral palsy, and he’s a total dick about it. He’s always like, “Oh, I’m crippled so I can’t do the dishes,” or he’ll just blow all of his disability checks on video games and take-out food. For two decades I’ve been secretly jealous of him, yearning for all that extra attention, free stuff, and lowered expectations. I was so envious I hijacked a wheelchair from a loading dock when I was six years old. I contorted my hands and feet and drove it around like I owned that motherfucker, just to see what it was like. People were smiling at me and waving; it was like being a celebrity.
Since then my curiosity has only intensified, until one day when I realised: I’m an adult now. I don’t need to steal a wheelchair to take a peek into the glamorous world of the physically disabled. I can simply rent one with my credit card! It’d be like the time Tyra Banks wore a fat suit to reveal that obese people are really just attention hogs.
The first step was to call up my brother to get the handicapped low-down. The most annoying thing, he told me, is when people refer to him as “handicapped.” He also said he blocks out all of his shitty experiences with strangers. Therefore his perception is that most people are either curious or overly nice. I couldn’t wait to be confined to my go-go seat and paint the town disabled.
Let me just say, I felt the burden of the wheelchair as soon as I sat down. I live in Montreal and it was winter. A day of “rollin’ around town” would consist of wheeling up and down a giant icy hill of death. My mantra became: “Without my wheelchair, I am just a rubbery mess of skin with bed sores and poop stains.” I called a couple of friends to see what they were up to, laying my disability on thick, telling them that the only choices were the art gallery, the casino, or the indoor zoo – the only wheelchair-accessible places in this city.
As I wheeled out of the house I realised I could hardly push myself down the sidewalk. The ice was thick and bumpy, which meant that I either had to go into the middle of the street like an asshole or give up my para-pride and let someone else push me. That wasn’t going to happen.
I managed to make it onto the metro, which was a lot of work even though I was sitting down the whole time. When I tried to get on the train I got stuck in the gap between the car and platform. Everybody was horrified as I tried to use the railings of the train to pull myself in. Nobody knew what to do; they were paralysed. Then the bell rang, signalling that the doors were shutting and I panicked. I hopped out of the wheelchair, pulled it in and sat down. Jaws dropped. Still, it took twice the usual amount of time to get to my chosen destination, the zoo.
The main thing I noticed at the zoo was my height. Being paraplegic put me on the same eye level as children. It’s a horizon of insanity. My brother told me that he used to tell kids he was contagious and they’d stay away.
I heard kids and adults alike say, “Watch out!” when they saw me coming, and a few do-gooders self-satisfyingly held open the door for me. To be honest, it was actually awesome to have people stressing out about my presence, but I had to keep pretending I was used to the attention.
When it was time to leave, I called a taxi company that advertised wheelchair-accessible vans. The zoo worker who led me to the taxi stand was extremely annoying and spoke to me as if I were a toddler. He bent down to get right in my face and spoke slow and loudly. Naively, I wanted to believe that maybe he interacted like this with everyone. But this was precisely what my brother had warned me about – the worst part about his physical disability is that a lot of people underestimate his intellectual abilities and not just strangers. He told me that teachers, classmates and even family members have all been devastatingly ignorant about his cerebral palsy, blatantly or subconsciously treating him as if he were mentally inferior.
A visit to the Montreal Zoo, one of the city’s few wheelchair-accessible attractions. These fish don’t have legs either.
In an attempt to engineer a more positive outcome to my social experiment, I decided to attend a wheelchair-basketball tournament. Watching the first game, I noticed something odd about all of the players: They were laughing and smiling, seemingly unconcerned about winning or losing. This stuck out in contrast from the wheelchair-basketball games I watched as a kid, where the guys were so top-heavy they seemed part buffalo, with burly handlebar mustaches and raggedy cutoff t-shirts. Those games were intense, full of yelling and sweating and blood. At this match, after the whistle blew and the game came to a stop, everybody just got up from their wheelchairs and walked away. I’d never felt so incredibly cheated.
Afterward I prepared for a night of intense drinking and driving at the only wheelchair-accessible place that served alcohol near my house. The nice thing about being in a wheelchair is that your shoes never get dirty or wet and you don’t actually have to walk while wearing high heels. My plan was to bring home a cute guy from the bar and make him lift me into bed, or at least get him to straddle me in my wheelchair.
Unfortunately, when I got to the club it turned out it was “Regay Night” and there just happened to be a disabled lesbian tearing it up on the dance floor, making disabled-lesbian eyes at me. I pounded drinks to make things less awkward and along the way realised another nice thing about being in a wheelchair is that bartenders remember exactly who you are and what you order.
Then, I decided, it was time to dance. I’d been researching wheelchair moves on YouTube all week in preparation. And I was ready to bust out all of the best arm movements I’d practiced, but I was still so awkward about the lesbian roller to the left of me. I could sense her in my periphery all night, giving me the eyes, presumably expecting to make whatever kind of love handicapped lesbians can manage.
Eventually I was so drunk I passed out with my head pressed up against the bar table (which was the perfect height). I felt a tap on my shoulder, and when I looked up, Handi-Lesbo was uncomfortably inside my domain, aggressively saying shit I couldn’t understand. I freaked out and wheeled away while some ginger person (my vision was too blurry to tell which sex) helped me through the door. As soon as I exited the building I bolted back to my apartment and swore I’d never make-believe that I was disabled again.
This brings me to my last point, or, if it were a science-fair experiment, “What I Learned”: Yes, having a physical impairment sucks, but it shouldn’t define a person. I also had the thought that perhaps my disabled friends would one day establish their own version of Israel, but for gimps instead of Jews. They could live peacefully among themselves, rolling around all of the open space they’ve ever wanted.
What I really should have been focusing on was how to make my heart more handicappable. Like, maybe it’s true that my brother actually can’t do the dishes. Perhaps he deserves more money from the government. And maybe I’m just an asshole, wasting my fully functioning body day after day after day.
Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’
Photos by Kara-Lis Coverdale