Yippee! I have come across a news article that confirms what I have suspected since I became an amputee- “Two-thirds of us are uncomfortable talking to disabled people”. The article and a myriad of others go on to give advice about how to behave when you are around a person with a disability. I am probably qualified to add to the list but why tell you what you can find elsewhere by a simple internet search?! The storyteller in me compels me instead, to share with you the top five awkward comments I have had from “well-meaning” people who couldn’t help but put their foot in their mouth.
This incident took place a few years ago in Nigeria when I went for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday celebration. We were sitting in the packed to capacity, 450 seater reception hall, waiting for the proceedings to start. Only a handful of people in attendance, consisting of close friends and relatives to me and my husband, knew about my disability. Dressed in my beautiful peach Nigerian outfit, which was a fitted off shoulder, embroidered top and a matching long flowing skirt, I am sure that anyone who did not know that I was wearing a prosthetic leg, was none the wiser. I stepped out of the hall for a few minutes to use the toilet and was pleased to hear the emcee’s voice as I stepped back in as this indicated that the event had finally started. Listening to him as I walked along the lengthy aisle that took me back to my seat in front, I was not surprised to hear him remind our guests of the need to be thankful to God for the privilege of being alive. What almost made me lose my footing was when, with exaggerated animation, he went on to say, “Shake your arms and your legs like this and thank God that you have two arms and two legs”. I am still so tempted to write him a letter which starts by saying: “Dear Emcee, the last time I checked the Good Book, the qualification for offering praise to the Lord is that you are breathing. ‘Let everything that has breath praise the LORD’ (Psalm 150 verse 6).
“A Case of Athlete’s Foot?”
Within the first year of becoming an amputee, doing my weekly shopping in a big departmental store with my brother, Niyi, was my way of slowly demolishing the wall of embarrassment and lack of confidence in public places. I had started to relax and even found people’s failed attempts at pretending not to see my ‘bionic leg’ somewhat humorous, when this interesting comment that ranks number four, threatened to knock my confidence. This incident that took place in a packed departmental store is a direct extract from my book, “IMPACT: My Story, My Ebenezer, My Victory”
“Niyi and I made our way to the packed tills and once we had paid, I stood aside while Niyi packed the bags. This elderly woman hobbled towards me, leaning on her walking stick, and from the running commentary she was giving the attendants at each till, it seemed like she was well known in the store. It also seemed like she was one sandwich short of a picnic. I braced myself because I just knew she would not be able to walk past me without saying something. She then stopped about two feet away from me and said loudly, in a thick Jamaican accent, “What happened to you? You've got athletes foot?” Thank God I have developed thick skin, or I would have willed the floor to open and swallow me. I muttered a response along the lines of my situation being a lot more serious than athlete’s foot and turned back to Niyi who was not at all amused!”
“The Privilege of Two Legs”
The dear Health Care Assistant (HCA) who was a part of my care team when I was recuperating in hospital made it into my book and her comment takes spot number three. I was sitting on my bed at mealtime while the HCA was giving out the food. I had ordered something from the hospital menu, just in case I did not fancy what Gbenga [my husband] brought in from home. When the HCA brought my food, I did not remember what I ordered but I knew it definitely was not the dish with sausages because I don’t eat sausages. I said to her with some irritation in my voice, “I am not sure what I ordered but it definitely was not sausages. What else is there?” Without saying anything, she took the dish back and brought me the alternative vegetarian dish. I took it from her and pointed out that she had not given me cutlery to eat with. By this time, she had clearly had enough of my demands, and she turned around and said to me, “I have only got two legs you know.” My greatest regret was not being witty enough to respond, “Well I have only got one leg, hence me needing your help!”
“The Elevator Pitch”
I was fascinated to find out from a work colleague that some people feel they come across as rude if they don’t make polite conversation with anyone they meet in a lift. I am the total opposite! I fall into the category of people who want to be left alone and can’t wait to get off. Clearly, the woman who takes the number two position for foot in mouth comments did not feel this way. As I stepped into a lift where I was attending a hospital appointment, she shifted sideways, leaning on her walking stick, to make room for me. As I moved into my spot and pressed the button for my floor, I felt her eyes on me, so I looked at her and smiled. As she smiled back, she probably felt the need to start her elevator “small talk”, so as she allowed her gaze to wander over me, she said, “Oh gosh, at least I now know someone who is worse off than me!” As unusual as it is for me, I was dumbfounded, but my thunderous expression said it all and ensured the one sided conversation ended promptly.
“Related by Disability”
My dear roommate in hospital has to take first place in the list of bad taste comments. One afternoon, as she lay on her bed with her back to me, out of the blue she asked me, “Ronke is the man next door your brother? I didn’t answer immediately because I was trying to work out who she was talking about. Still having no clue who she was referring to, I said, “No, I don’t have a brother on the ward.” As I was still thinking of what next to say, she interrupted my thoughts with her explanation of the logic behind her question. “Oh, I thought you were related because he’s got one leg just like you”. What in the world do you say to that?!
Lastly, let me say that for those who are unsure of how to relate to a person with a disability, my advice to you, from my experience would be, don’t be any different around them, see the person first not the disability, know that the more you interact with a person with a disability, the less awkward it will become, don’t make so much of a fuss around them and last but not least, if need be, do some disability awareness training.