Gestures In praise of pleasure, thoughtfulness and the softer side of life

By Stephen Trumper

In disability circles, as we all know only too well, there is frequent talk—incessant carping, some might insist—about tearing down barriers to increase accessibility (as we do throughout this special issue of Abilities). These discussions are often fuelled by anger and frustration, emotions brought on by feeling excluded, ignored, forgotten, discriminated against, unwelcome.

We all have our horror stories of being shut off, shut out and shut down. I have shared many of my own “Grim Encounters with the Able-Bodied” in these pages.

What often gets lost in irate obstacle-talk, however, are the thoughtful gestures of people who don’t want to be barriers, who want to show common cause, who simply want to help without being all smarmy, condescending or overbearing about it.

My wife Judy calls these moments “grace notes,” reminders that a world that is frequently hostile to folks with all kinds of disabilities does have a softer side.

I think of Megan, a smart, delightful former student. She was and still is a hugger. And, as I quickly came to know, a natural-born hugger to a person in a wheelchair. None of that awkward wondering how to do this with Megan. And certainly none of that don’t get close to a person with a disability.

I think of an unknown businessman on upper Yonge Street in Toronto. It was my afternoon off. We were ambling south—he walking about 50 feet ahead of me and my personal support worker—when, suddenly, out of nowhere the rain came pelting down. I expected unknown businessman to dash ahead of us. Instead, he stopped, opened up a surprisingly large golf umbrella and trotted back to cover us. He continued to hold it aloft as we three, newly sheltered from the storm, made our way to the drier subway.

I think of the thousands of people in public places who patiently hold doors open for me—or press the automatic door-opener button in advance of my arrival.

I think of the unknown sales associate at basement level inside Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan who, even though he was far across the room, spotted my wife Judy and me struggling to get
my wheelchair up an awkward couple of steps. “Hold on! I’ll help you,” he called out. “I’ve got a bad back, but I’ll give you a hand!”

I think of a TTC bus driver who gleefully, in an attempt to force able-bodied people to board at the back of the bus instead of rudely jumping in front of me, decided to halt the descending access ramp for a moment, almost like a drawbridge or maybe a shield. Only when he was sure all the other passengers had gone to the back did he lower the ramp, while flashing me the merriest of grins.

Finally, I think of Judy, particularly during our early days of dating. Throughout those times I was massively self-conscious about my rather misshapen, semi-paralyzed body. I’m pretty sure it happened on our fourth date, at a restaurant called Hart’s. We had a lovely dinner, at which wine and conversation flowed. We ordered cappuccinos, talked and laughed some more. Then, Judy slowly brought one hand closer to my paralyzed hand, cupping it tightly. I looked down. I looked up. Judy was smiling. So was I.

And the grace notes continued.

Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.

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