Dr. Jan Meyer: World view from 'The Chair' is different

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

On my recent experience of getting to the relief provided by spinal surgery, I seemed to go in stages of dealing with the pain.

First I was hobbling around, and then moving from one piece of furniture to the next for support. Then I found the cane – dubbed Cameron – that had been hiding in the myriad of boxes and “stuff” that we’ve been trying to unpack at our new place.

I tried crutches, but that didn’t work well at all. Eventually I realized that if I was needed to move any distance at all, I was going to have to opt for a wheelchair instead.

Like I guess almost everyone else, I was reluctant to do that. I recalled my aunt, who had wished her entire life to visit “the old country” from which both of her parents had emigrated. So, for her 70th birthday, I took her to Norway.

I told her far ahead of time that there would be a lot of walking involved on the trip, so it would be a big help if she would start a regular program of walking every day so she would work up to what would be needed on the trip.

She didn’t follow that advice, so I went to the local medical supply store and rented a lightweight collapsible wheelchair to take along. She was livid, and said if that thing went along she wasn’t going.

So I dutifully, but regretfully took it back and off we went. In the end, I decided that the only times she really enjoyed the adventure were the days when she could sightsee from the car, when we were out in the country and she could look at sights without even getting out.

In the cities, she went from one bench to another, but that became a lighthearted joke about the trip: every bench she sat on seemed to have a man sitting on it too. I took pictures of her and the man on every one.

When we returned home, I prepared a little slide show for her to show to her friends, and titled those photos as “And here I am again, looking for a man in Norway!” She was a self-declared spinster, or “maiden aunt” as we called her.

I experienced that reluctance again years later, when doing the Honor Flights. If we had any doubts about “our” veterans being able to walk around the Washington, D.C., memorials they were going to visit, we would suggest that they use a wheelchair for the day.

It would make a much more enjoyable trip for them. When they insisted – against our better judgment – that they could walk, I recalled my Aunt Myrtle.

So we started asking if they would rather walk or ride when we got there, and it seemed to give them permission without “losing face” if they chose to ride.

Now, in my own recent experience, Spouse Roger often dropped me off at the door to get to my medical appointments, and I would wait there, along with Cameron, for him to park and come back to help me along.

The wonderful attendants who rush to open doors when cars drive up would ask if I needed a wheelchair. One day I decided that yes, I did need to ride! And that started my own experience with, not only how I felt about being in a wheelchair, but how others treat those riders.

Every culture has a set of unwritten rules for nonverbal behavior. Ours is no exception, and we have all learned at an extremely early age what they are and to follow them.

These become our behavioral norms, what we do and what we expect others to do, and how to react to others following—or not following—those rules.

Eye contact is one behavior that we learn: when we talk to someone, we should establish eye contact, and also be at the same level because our culture values equality. We aren’t comfortable talking to someone who is at a noticeable higher or lower level than we are.

In the past few weeks prior to surgery, sitting in a wheelchair myself, I noticed that most people will not look at people sitting in wheelchairs, and will not establish eye contact.

If necessary to have some kind of conversation, they most often talk to the person who is “driving,” i.e., pushing or accompanying the seated person.

Or they will stoop or sit down in order to be on a “level playing field.” Noticing this now reminded me of the research done by a graduate school colleague, who did her Ph.D. dissertation about these behaviors.

I went back to one of her publications about that research to check it out (Dawn Braithwaite, Ph.D., “From Majority to Minority: An Analysis of Cultural Change from Ablebodied to Disabled” in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 14, p. 465-83, 1990). She used the terms “able-bodied” and “disabled” to make the distinction.

She studied only people who had been able-bodied and became disabled through an accident or illness. She described how people needed to change their communication style and strategies when they become disabled.

They have literally changed cultures, and need to learn the rules, or behavioral norms that work, of that new culture. These are human factors, not the technical factors of learning how to do physical tasks, and can be far more frustrating.

After all, our learned “communication strategies” come from our deep mindset, and are taken for granted. Suddenly, those learned behaviors don’t work anymore. It is like traveling abroad.

Braithwaite also identified strategies that disabled people use when adapting to their new culture. Perhaps it was because I was hopefully temporarily, not permanently, a “rider,” I found that for me the best tool was a sense of playfulness.

I kept a smile on my face, and tried to establish eye contact with others. Often they would look surprised, and then smile back. On crowded elevators, I’d try to say something lighthearted or hopefully humorous.

I found another benefit of that: if I was concentrating on doing that, I wasn’t thinking about my own misery. And, fortunately, at least so far I was only temporarily disabled.