All of my adult life I have tried to embrace diversity, and encouraged others to do the same. The logic goes like this. If one of my purposes in life is to break down barriers between people with disabilities and those without disabilities, then accepting differences is essential. However, I have come to understand that there is value in sharing stories and experiences with people in similar circumstances.
It was at the beginning of my junior year in college when I first met Susan. Initially, she seemed very nice, but I was curious, after introducing myself, how things were going to go between us. It wasn’t personal by any means. Susan is a wheelchair user affected by Spina Bifida. Up until that point, I hadn’t hung out with other people with disabilities much. At my high school, I was the lone wheelchair user four years running. And although I met many other people with cerebral palsy when I was involved in sports during that time, most of them were mentors to me, I didn’t often spend time with them socially. Even when I began my college career, I was one of only a handful of wheelchair users on campus, and the majority of them lived in a different residence hall. I knew them. They knew me. Sometimes we said hello. That was usually the end of the interaction between us.
So, when Susan moved into a room two doors down from me, I knew that meant that some things were going to be a little different, but it was nothing to worry about. Susan was more outgoing than I am, and has a knack of making those around her comfortable. She was a music major, was passionate about purple, and made a habit of spraying perfume in the middle of the room and then wheeling around quickly to soak up its essence. We quickly became good friends.
Pretty late one night, I went into Susan’s room while I was taking a study break. I don’t remember exactly how we got on the topic, but we started talking about things we notice as wheelchair users, that other people might miss. It was the late 80’s and there were many things in terms of accessibility that simply didn’t make sense. The cracks in the sidewalk that are hard to get over. The soap dispensers in public restrooms that always seem to be out of reach. Why are some places considered accessible when there is a threshold of about an inch to get over before you can get through the door?
Randomly Susan asked me a question, somewhat related; but more personal.
“Have you ever noticed that sometimes a guy’s jeans don’t fit his butt? I just hate that.”
My laughter exploded as she verbalized the thought that had made its way into my head on a fairly regular basis.
“I try not to notice, but I can’t help myself. It’s right at eye level, and once you see that, you really can’t look away.”
I had noticed this phenomenon more times than I can count, but I never felt comfortable telling anyone. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that Susan would totally understand. It was awesome! She got it! This was camaraderie at it’s finest!
The next day, we told Wayne, a mutual friend of ours about the conversation. He thought the whole concept was hysterical, but made it clear that he was going to be a bit more self-conscious around the two of us from that point on.
Fast forward a full six months. The interaction had pretty much been forgotten.
Wayne and I were in my room having a discussion. Susan was at a friend’s apartment, and she called to ask me something. When I told her Wayne was with me, Susan decided to have some fun. She had a challenge for him. She wanted to bet that she could embarrass him in less than ten seconds. He didn’t think it was possible, so he told her to go for it. I handed him the phone.
Susan cleared her throat and then distinctly said “Nice jeans, Wayne.”
Well played Susan. Downright brilliant, in fact.
I thought he just might melt into a puddle of goo in the middle of my floor. I have never seen anyone turn red and speechless quite so quickly before or since. Susan effortlessly won that bet. No two ways about it.
She lives in Texas these days, and like most college friends I am sure, we don’t communicate as much as I would like. Every once in awhile we catch up on Facebook and talk about the memories we share.
And about the jeans? Sometimes they fit. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s okay.
All of my adult life, I have tried to embrace diversity.