To the Girl at College Who Loudly Asked 'Why Are You On a Scooter?'
First, I would like to apologize for being unable to address you by name. See, I don’t actually know your name. I feel a little better about this, because I assume you don’t know mine, either. We met only once during freshman orientation and have never had a real conversation. This practically non-existent relationship is part of the reason why I was so surprised when we passed each other on campus and you regarded me with a look of shock and repulsion and demanded to know, in front of a group of your friends, “Why are you on a scooter?”
I explained, as best and as quickly as I could, that I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a chronic illness that affects my autonomic nervous system, particularly my heart and blood vessels. My illness makes it very difficult for me to stand or walk for any length of time, so I require a mobility scooter to traverse campus.
Look, I get it. Seeing a 19-year-old college student on a mobility scooter can be unusual, strange, perhaps even jarring. We tend to associate scooters with elderly people at the grocery store, not short, cheerful girls with fluorescent pink backpacks on college campuses. But I’m using it for the same reason Grandma does at Costco — I need it. It was completely covered by insurance and approved in a day because I really, really need it. It makes a college experience possible for me.
We don’t imagine that disabled people are going to appear on campus, or that someone we thought was healthy actually isn’t. We might not think about the fact that disabled people of all ages walk (or roll) among us. So I’m not mad. I’m going to cut you some slack here. Maybe you were just surprised, or it just slipped out. It’s cool. Disability is a tough topic to try to navigate, and these conversations are often awkward.
So I see it from your perspective. Try to see it from mine.
Having a disability can be very alienating and isolating. My disability creates what I refer to as the “That Guy” Phenomenon. When I have to make obvious accommodations for my health, I automatically become “that guy”. “That guy” on the scooter. “That guy” who has to lie down in the middle of the library. “That guy” whose medication alarm goes off four times a day. No one wants to be “that guy.” “That guy” is different, which is the exact opposite of what people want to be during the first weeks of college.
But as nice as it would be to blend in with the crowd, I have to be “that guy.” Every action I perform requires careful thought and planning. This can be a foreign idea to the average young person, but for me, it’s a constant fact of life. I have to decide if the walk to the library is short enough that I can manage it without my scooter, even if I’m a little dizzy. I have to make sure that water is available wherever I go so I can get in my 5 liters before the end of the day. I have to decide if going out to lunch today will take too much energy and exhaust me tomorrow.
I’m not saying this so you’ll feel bad or guilty, but so you see where I’m coming from. College is stressful enough, and I have the added responsibility of managing a chronic illness every moment of every day. All I want is to be accepted and valued like everyone else on campus. So interactions like that, where it’s clear that I’m not, can be pretty upsetting.
I’m totally cool talking about my scooter — I put a Captain America shield on the front so it looks funny and cute and approachable. I’m completely comfortable explaining my disability to friends and acquaintances. I’m not trying to deter questions or conversations, because I think openness when discussing disability is the only way to educate people.
Here’s the heart of it: disabled people exist. That’s something we all need to process and understand. But we are not our disabilities. We’re people, with feelings and insecurities just like you. So treat us that way. Be respectful and tactful. Don’t act like disabled people are shocking or unnatural. We’re not. We’re the kids on your college campus. We’re everywhere. And we’re human beings.
Follow this journey on chronically ch(ill).
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