You’re at the mall early Sunday afternoon, looking for ballet flats to replace your pair that is falling apart. It’s not your favorite place in the world, but it’s not horrible. You’re there early enough that it’s not crowded, and your fellow shoppers seem to be enjoying the day off work, so the atmosphere is pleasant enough. You’ve found your shoes and picked up a black and white polka dotted dress that you don’t need, but might look cute enough to take on your trip next weekend.
Then a woman walks up to you. She has that typical young suburban mom look: jean jacket, expensive jeans, dusty blonde hair with highlights, pretty, with just enough makeup to hide the first signs of age, but not too much that it’s not flattering. She says excuse me,Â and you wonder if you dropped something. You smile.
She gives you a big grin, moves in a little too close to you and does that weird hoppy thing that high school girls do when they find out that their best friend has been asked out by a football player. Excited, happy and overly insincere. You mentally brace yourself for a question about where you got your jeans or advice that your shoes just aren’t quite right for your outfit (you knew this already, but that’s why you’re getting new shoes).
Instead she says “Can I pray for you and your disability?”
You freeze and stare at her, forgetting what your line is. Luckily your brain can do this on autopilot “No, you may not.” you say, then as she opens her mouth to respond you add “Please get away from me.” You’re not sure where the please came from, but file it away anyway. The woman responds “Well, God bless you” tosses her hair and walks off.
You’re still frozen. Suddenly, the years of building up your body and your psyche fall away and you’re that strange preteen on crutches, the one who has to hide before school because the bullies will knock her down if she ventures out into the hallway. The one who has every step from the front entrance to the band room memorized (300 of them. Step, hop, step, hopâ€¦ you count because it’s easier to count how many steps you’ve taken than to look up and see what kind of pain you’re in for.) The director lets you sit in there and hide while he keeps out the bullies.
Now, you can barely see through the haze of your differences. You logically know that most of the people in the store don’t care enough to look, and if they do, you’re a momentary curiosity to them, but suddenly you’re other, in a way that feels very vulnerable, very exposed. All of these other people, they’re normal. You’re not one of them. How could you ever have thought that you were?
Fifteen seconds ago you were normal, just one of hundreds of shoppers out on a rainy morning. You were completely, comfortingly anonymous. You were whole with all of the traits you’ve worked so hard over the years. The pains, the insecurities, the things you’re embarrassed about, they were all hidden, inside a somewhat pretty girl shopping for dresses. You weren’t thinking about the way you walk because honestly, most of the time, you don’t. It’s not that bad. There’s no pain accompanying it, now that you’ve slowly worked up to the point that you can maintain a decent level of exercise. The only things that really remind you of it are the weakness running up the outside of your leg where there should be a muscle taking up the slack, and occasional questions from friends or small children who are curious.
These reminders don’t bother you. You’re always happy to explain the things that are different about you: an honest question is a chance for honest understanding. Plus, it entertains you how embarrassed parents are when their kids ask a question like that. The weakness only matters when you’re trying to pull two very specific moves when climbing, and you’ve learned to climb around most routes that require that move.
However, the request to pray for you does hurt, in a way that anyone who has never been abnormal can’t understand. The request hurts because it is not only a statement that you are different, which is okay, but a statement that you are different in a way that needs to be fixed. It is a presumption that removes all strength from you and puts it into the hands of this healthy, perky, privileged woman.
You’re not just hurt for yourself, because you know that at the end of the day your limp doesn’t impact your daily life in any way. You’re angry for your friends, who have much more difficult challenges they’ve overcome. You’re angry for the children of your friends, who have challenges that they will have to overcome. This woman, and the women like her who make this request of you every two months anger you because you know that she will ask these people you love, these wonderful, strong, able, whole people, if they mind if she tries to fix them.
Because none of you need fixing. When someone asks to pray for you, a stranger, they are saying “you are less than me” “you are not good enough to fix yourself, so you must need my condescension”. Make no mistake, that is what they’re saying. They have good intentions, yes, but you don’t say to someone who you think is on your level that you want to make them better. You don’t single them out as someone in need of charity. You ask them what their needs are. You ask them what their experience is. YouÂ try to understand.
Please, let your child ask me questions. Let them say that I walk funny and ask why. Because then I can kneel down next to them, explain that because of a brilliant surgeon and supportive hospital, I have a body that works. I can direct them to look at the positives of my experience rather than the negatives. I can ask them to focus on who I am and who I’ve worked to be, as a woman, a scientist, an educator, rather than focusing on my hindrances.
Then, maybe, the next person they talk to, they might think “hey, this person is strong”, “this person is like me”, this person has worked hard to be where they are, and they don’t see their physical or mental limitations as things to be fixed by outsiders, but rather something that is part and parcel of who they are. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t be the kind of person who goes around trying to fix people who don’t want or need it.
Or maybe they’ll grow up to be an orthopedic surgeon and fix me in the way I do need it, when I come to them asking for help. Either outcome is worthwhile to me.
Brilliant & powerful post. You’re a wonderful, strong woman. Thanks for sharing.
Emily, it’s at times like this I wish it were possible to turn back the clock and make this encounter go away, or at least to have been there so you weren’t alone. It isn’t of course, and I’m very sorry this hurtful experience forced it self on you. There are two kinds of people. Those of us who love and appreciate you for the awesome and radiant person you are, and those who don’t–and to paraphrase Le Mis, their little lives don’t count at all. Stay strong and smile. Most of the time you’re among friends.
That woman was a total interfering snot, plain and simple. She got what she deserved. Ableism is such bullshit, in part because ableists seem to have NO IDEA that being able is a temporary condition for almost every single one of us. And given that woman’s social skills, she’s got some pretty big gaps of her own to address without stopping people in the mall and harassing them with prayer.
You know, I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve noticed your walk. I’ve got a “funny” walk of my own. But what I *remember* when I think about you is how imaginative you are and how much fun you have with cosplay, how beautiful your hair and smile are, how well you write, the cool way you dress, how much I enjoy talking with you, and how envious I am that you can climb stuff that I know would have me scared shitless. And I haven’t the slightest impulse amidst all of that to pray for you.
I’m going to share this one around. As you probably know, I’ve got circles of people who understand completely.
“Ableism is such bullshit, in part because ableists seem to have NO IDEA that being able is a temporary condition for almost every single one of us.”
Exactly! And thank you for the kind words and the sharing. They mean a lot to me.
wow. that is totally ridiculous. It blows my mind that people are so…I don’t even know the word. insensitive? oblivious? It is pretty clear that you were not the one that needed to be “fixed” in that interaction.
I love the fact that you didn’t explain yourself. You just got right to the point and told the woman to leave you alone. And somehow, you combined politeness with telling her to STFU. Brava!
Hey, my parents manage to raise a polite girl, no matter how much my inner combativeness fights with it sometimes!
I could have written this, but not nearly as well. Thank you for putting into words something that has been bugging me for a long time.
A former forearm crutch user.
I know that so well. I live somewhere a little more secular, so I don’t get the prayer thing very often, but I do get similar comments.
A more religious friend told me that the best response to an unwelcome offer of prayer is to say “No, I’m perfect the way god made me.”
I like that. It speaks to them in their own language.
I like that response. It’s true! If I was made by a creator deity, then I was made in a particular way, and that way *includes* a limp.
I do hesitate to use religious language because I don’t like to reinforce the idea that everyone shares that around here, but it’s something to file away for future encounters.
Praiseworthy … !
I tried to think of it from her perspective. Probably her greatest sin is not minding her own business. She honestly believes that her spoken word magic to her invisible deity can change the physical realm and she thinks she should use her powers for “good.” That’s not the worst thing in the world. Lots of people believe in invisible magic: prayer, luck, positive thinking, etc. It’s not mine to judge the value of any such magic over another. It IS our responsibility to respect others. Some after better at it than others. Based on the comments you’ve received, Emily, you are greatly respected by those that matter.
I feel like someone that asks, “Can I pray for you?” is looking for a pat on the back or some kind of praise for being kind, rather than actually acting upon a genuine concern for others. It’s selfish, not selfless. If she wanted to pray for you simply to wish you well regardless of what she assumed you were going through (even if wrong) she’d just have DONE IT.
I really think it takes a hell of a lot of audacity to come up to someone and say what basically amounts to, “I’ve made these basic assumptions about you as a person based on what I observed about you in ten seconds from across this crowded mall.” She didn’t know you, and she had no right to make any assumptions or pass any judgment. I’m sorry you had to go through that at all, but I think you handled yourself with grace and immense patience by dismissing her so succinctly, rather than decking her. I retweeted your original link to this, hopefully others share it as well. It’s a great story worth repeating to remind people that they should not presume to think that others need “fixing” just for being different than they are.
“If she wanted to pray for you simply to wish you well regardless of what she assumed you were going through (even if wrong) sheâ€™d just have DONE IT.” Ohhh, good point.
next time, I can ask you what you like to have prayer for problems and difficulties in life and, instead of assuming you need healing of your legs
sorry that we make you feel very weak
-from an ableist Christian
Whilst out with a wheelchair-using friend we had a group of evangelists say that if she went with them their prayers would enable her to walk. My friend stopped to politely humour them discuss and the terms,of her forthcoming miracle 🙂
I would have been tempted to some some profane and definitely not sacred language to her! Why do people who are different is some way need to be pitied? We all have strengths and weaknesses and they are what make us who we are
Thank you for sharing your insight and strength
I am a new reader to your blog, and am very happy to have enetered on this particular post. My son (age5) has CP and uses a walker to help him walk. He has always been a motivated, driven little boy, even as a baby–nothing was going to keep him down. I have noticed that since he started public school everything has changed–he is frustrated all the time, angry, upset–AND he seems to have forgotten that he can do certian things for himself–as I think people are “taking pity’ on him and that takes so much away from him. While there is much that he struggles with as both legs and his left arm have vayring levels of difficulty, making many tasks a test of creativity and stubborn will–I have found that even simple tasks, like getting his favorite toy from his bedroom–has prompted him to ask his brother or myself to get it for him. If he is over tired or over stressed, of course I would, regardless of how much of a challenge it would be for him or for his brother who had four working (mostly) limbs. But if he is just in a regular mood, and telling someone else they have to do it for him, I always tell him to do it himself, using my mother’s favorite turn of phrase “your leg’s not broken, get it yourself”. I have had people gasp or look at me as though I am the worst parent int the world to not wait hand and foot on my son. But I know that he is an amazing and capable little boy, and I want to make sure that he knows it to. There is no reason his CP or other people’s assumptions about his abilites should ever hold him back from being and doing anything that he wants. He just has to be more creative and work a bit harder physically than many other people do. We do a lot of bracing (AFO’s, Hip SWASH, etc…) and he has PT and adpative equipment and is looking forward to someday moving up to arm crutches. We focus daily on the things that he CAN do and on ways to help him do more–and physically he is doing great. His emotional wellbeing is what is beginning to be the primary issue, as so many well meaning people out there want to talka bout how to “fix” him and look and talk to him with pity, I think it is depressing him–making him fel like ther is something “wrong” with him that needs to be “fixed”. He is an amazing, strong, talented, and pain in the butt (like all kids are) child with some extra challenges. He derseves thier awe at how musical and smart and funny he is, not their pity because he struggles to walk. Thank you for posting this, I will be sharing it on my facebook page–heck, I may even try to link it to a blog post the next time I do a psot of my own. Thank you again for your expression and yoru insight.
Yes, a brilliant post, and one I personally can very much relate to. Thanks for this.
I can identify with being picked on in school.
What an amazing response about the children! When my daughter was little, I know that I would have chided her for asking a question like that, but your reaction is terrific. I’m not sure other people would have it, but I would be proud to have had my little girl get a lesson out of an innocent question.
(She’s 19 now, but when she was little, she was a master of that sort of question.)