There is one Christmas gift that Mabel LeVasseur would like more than any other this year.
It’s a gift that would have to come from all of us together, you and me, young and old, in cities and towns all over Maine. It’s a valuable gift that wouldn’t cost us a thing, either, except for maybe an extra minute or two of our time and the occasional smile.
She asks that as the stressful pace of the holiday season unfolds, we all try to imagine what it would be like to ride a mile in her wheelchair, across icy parking lots and through the aisles of stores filled with people who think of you not as a person but as a balky, clumsy impediment to their progress.
Perhaps then, she says, we might all begin to better appreciate the one thing that she and so many other disabled people want most from us – not just at Christmas, but the whole year through.
“Respect, that’s all,” says Mabel, who is 38 years old. “Not your sympathy. Not your pity. I don’t want that. But please, just stop for a minute and consider the difficulties people face in this world with wheelchairs, or crutches, and show us common courtesy and respect. Nothing more.”
Up until two years ago, Mabel says, she would not have felt compelled to make such a plea on the part of the disabled. After all, she walked just fine back then. She led a productive life, having worked off and on as a medical secretary for almost 15 years while raising a daughter in Old Town and Bangor. Then the unexpected happened. The antidepressant medicine she was taking to get through a tough time began to backfire, causing nerve damage that twisted her left foot painfully under her as she walked. To ease the constriction, doctors gave her a nerve block that left her with no feeling or control of the muscles in the lower half of her leg.
She started walking with a cane, then a leg brace and crutches, and now relies mostly on her wheelchair and a young woman named Kathy, her personal care attendant, to get around. At this point, her doctors can’t say whether she’ll ever walk normally again.
“I’ll get by somehow,” Mabel says, sitting in her wheelchair in the Brewer apartment she shares with her husband and daughter. “Lately, though, the hardest part has been finding out how people in wheelchairs are treated, how rude and impatient others can be with them. It really infuriates me.”
And each time she ventures out these days – sliding down the apartment stairs on her backside and folding herself into Kathy’s flashy little yellow VW Beetle idling in the driveway – she runs into other situations to get angry about.
So many perilous, rickety wheelchair ramps, hastily thrown together merely to satisy the law, she says, or no ramps at all when you need them. So many thoughtless people who pull into handicap parking spaces and then dash into the stores on perfectly healthy legs. So many handicap entrances blocked, or locked, forcing her to sit out in the rain and cold until someone finally lets her in. So many disgusted looks from huffy strangers who push past her wheelchair in crowded stores without ever excusing themselves.
“Most of the time we’re made to feel like we’re in the way,” says Kathy. “People are in such a hurry in stores that they actually jump ahead of us in line because we don’t move fast enough to the counter. In restaurants, we’re always seated in the back. People will let doors slam in our faces as we’re trying to get the wheelchair into stores. Some clerks will just stand there and never offer us a hand. Not everyone acts this way, of course, but it’s much more common than you can imagine. Really, how hard is it to give someone a little helping hand? Isn’t that what we were taught as children?”
For Mabel, what hurts the most is the perception that somehow she is less than a whole person because she sits in a wheelchair.
“I feel it very deeply when people look at me like I’m some kind of a freak,” she says. “Yes, that hurts a lot, being made to feel different when I’m no different from anyone else. Don’t they know that I would love to just wander through a store without having to drag a wheelchair or crutches around with me? Two years ago, I would never have imagined I’d be in this situation. One day you’re fine, the next day you can’t walk. People have to understand that it can happen to them, too, just like it happened to me.”
Mabel knows that she can turn to such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act to overcome some of the obstacles in her life. But as she’s come to learn more and more over the last year, there are no laws that can force the people you meet each day to treat you with common courtesy, respect and dignity.
So if any of you folks out there are looking to give the perfect gift this Christmas, a gift that can really make a difference in a person’s life, Mabel LeVasseur has a suggestion.
“Please, open up your hearts a little when dealing with people with disabilities, people who may seem different from you,” she says. “I’m not asking for anything special, just that you try to appreciate the woman that I am and not the woman in the wheelchair.”