When a Panhandler in a Wheelchair Changed How I Think About Respect


The moment in Paris I’ll never forget wasn’t the taste of a spectacular glass of champagne or the sight of the Eiffel Tower. It was a chance meeting with a man.

I was out on a stroll (roll) just a few hours after arriving in Paris. Not five minutes in, I crossed paths with another wheelchair user. He’s Romanian. In a past life, he was a husband and a father. He became disabled after what must have been a horrible accident involving a fire. He was abandoned and cast aside — even by his own wife. Now he’s a panhandler, seeking out the generosity of others to survive.

I, too, am a burn survivor. Our shared experience allowed us to connect through understanding. My injuries were extensive and led to three amputations. I was fortunate to be left with a healthy, dominant left hand. This man’s hands are missing fingers. He lost a leg. His facial scarring is severe. But he possesses a spirit that is unconquered.

Ten minutes into our meeting, I asked for his name. He motioned to his breast and said, “Heart.” Confused, I asked again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I am my heart.”

Let that sink in for a moment. I did. I realized my worldly identity means nothing. What resides in my heart determines who I am.

He asked me to follow him down the street. I didn’t realize until we had arrived that he was taking me to his home.

He lives on the Champs-Élysées, the posh avenue which connects the Louvre museum and the Arc de Triomphe. He’s not staying in a fine hotel like the one I will enjoy this week. Every night, he makes his bed by the door of a shop on the Rue du Colisée.

He pointed to the ground at a loaf of bread. “The owner leaves this for me.”

I thought again of that heart. I told him he inspires me and is a good man. I told him his strength was heroic.

Gesturing to the sky, he said, “I only live because of God. That’s life.”

I made the sign of the cross, saying a silent prayer for my new friend, “Heart.” He came closer, locked his wheels and embraced me. He cried. I cried. He held me tighter and kissed my cheek. I kissed his.

“No one respects me,” he said. “No one loves like God. I am Orthodox.”

I told him about my Roman Catholic faith. How I credit the love and teachings of God for my own recovery. He nodded in agreement.

I told him that I wanted to share his story with my friends. I asked to take a photograph with him, but he declined. I understood.

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“We have God as friend,” he said.

Some minutes later, and it being nearly 1:00 a.m., I told him goodbye. As I started to roll away, I heard, “I am Livio.” I could only smile and continue on. He will always be “Heart” to me.

After we parted, I thought about what he had told me through the tears: “No one respects me.” I’ve always struggled to define respect for the disabled, as it is new territory for me. Is it a lack of respect when an able-bodied person believes a wheelchair user to be incapable? Is it disrespectful to make assumptions about a person’s abilities or inabilities? These are difficult questions with complicated answers. Yet, I was only a few minutes away from understanding what he meant by respect.

As I approached my hotel, I saw at least 10 people walk through its front door without issue. When I arrived, the bellman stepped in front of me and demanded to see my key. Wow. Am I unfit to stay at a nice Parisian hotel because I’m a wheelchair user? Or am I just less fit than those who came before me?

I have always wondered what the greater purpose for my car accident was. Tonight, as I handed over my room key, those questions of “why” were answered. The purpose and reason for it all was made clear. All of us have value. I believe God knows it so why doesn’t society? The disabled community needs loud voices. I can be one of those. Through my website and through my own personal activism, I believe I can help to eradicate the stigma that is attached to disability. My heart is in it.

Will you join me?

Follow this journey on WheelchairTravel.org.

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