We are having a beautiful autumn here in Upstate New York, with surprisingly more sunny days than we are accustomed to by mid-November. I have been taking advantage of these days by, of course, taking many walks. Throughout the fall, I enjoy walking the trail around a lake near my house. The trail goes completely around the lake and I love watching the brilliant turn of color in the leaves week after week. The trail is about two miles long and I can walk it in just under an hour. The nature trail is full of roots and rocks imbedded in the path so I have to be conscious of picking up my feet as to not trip on one of them and land on my knees. I still usually take a fall at least once a year, no matter how careful I am. I had my 2011 fall last week. I was happy I had gone over a year without a fall.
It seems my walks recently are providing me some good material for these posts. Just last week I was taking a little detour to an adjoining lake that one can get to on the trail. It was a little after 4pm and I was just planning to take a few minutes to walk near the other lake. As I was trekking up the hill to the other lake, a couple passed me going in the opposite direction. The woman said, in a friendly, but slightly anxious way, “Don’t forget it will get dark earlier tonight.” We had just changed the clocks back the night before, so this would have been the first evening of darkness at 5pm. So was it just a friendly reminder? Perhaps. However, I cannot imagine the woman was saying it to everyone she passed on a day filled with people walking the trail.
Consequently, I begin to ponder….did she say that specifically to me because she sees I have a disability and assumes I need that reminder? Was the underlying message “You may not remember yourself and may need my help.” I hate to think that way. I like to always come from the premise that people are respectful by nature and can easily dismiss any inclinations to be condescending when they see my difference. However, reality steps in from time to time and I end up rolling my eyes and sighing at the thought that some people continue to treat those of us with disabilities in deprecating ways, no matter how subtle and well-intentioned it is.
A few weeks earlier, I had a similar encounter. An older couple came up from behind me on the trail and passed me. Nearly everyone passes me on the trail since I am taking my time to not take a flying leap over some protrusion in the trail. As they passed me, the woman said, “You’re doing a great job.” I got to tell you, I hate comments like this. I understand they come from good-hearted, well-intentioned places, but they sound so condescending to my ears. Yes, I do put a little more effort into taking a walk than the average Joe, but that’s a reality of my life. Everything is more effort! BUT – and this is the key to why I feel these comments are condescending – most of the time, it does not feel like effort to me because this is all I have ever known.
So from my perspective….I am out on a beautiful autumn Sunday, out in nature, getting exercise, walking off some dessert I couldn’t resist. Why do I have a woman telling me I am doing a great job? Like the previous story, is she saying this to everyone she passes? Does she say it to the young, well-built man running laps around the lake? No, I didn’t think so.
Then, as this couple moves ahead of me, I notice the woman, who is heavier and doesn’t appear in the best physical shape, is walking at a slower pace than most people and has a cough. She pauses a couple times to cough. It occurs to me that given her physical condition, she was probably doing a great job also. There are many times when I would love to give sharp, but yet subtle responses back to people like “Why, thanks! You’re doing a great job too,” as a way to highlight absurdity of what they just said to me. I realized, though, in this case it might actually be true and her compliment was indeed one because of her own effort she was putting forth. This causes me to take a moment to try to see what’s going on in the other person that produces comments like this. After all, the more I understand them, the more they will ultimately understand me.