I don’t know if this happens to a lot of people with disabilities but when I go somewhere alone, I often learn something personal about a complete stranger. Over the years, the people I meet on the street, at the grocery store or on the subway tell me some pretty amazing things. Sometimes they say; Can I Ask You a Personal Question? Surprisingly, it’s not always related to disability.
One memorable day stands out. I was just 21 years old and had landed a summer data-entry job with an oil company in downtown Calgary. I was walking along a busy street mall during lunch when a homeless man asked me for spare change.
I reached into my pocket when suddenly another homeless man emerged from the opposite side of the street and briskly pulled his friend away, scolding him that he couldn’t ask me for money.
It was the first time I’d ever considered that other people’s perceptions of my disability could actually prevent me from giving to panhandlers, and it was shocking. I was still processing this in the elevator to the food court.
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Once inside, I realized I was standing alone with a very rough-looking man covered in tattoos who clearly was very angry. He was muttering with clenched fists and breathing very heavily, all the while looking at me as I stood there on my crutches dressed in a shirt and tie looking confused, corporate and probably like someone wishing to blend into the wall.
Suddenly he blurted out, “My girlfriend ran off with my best friend and they sold all of my stuff while I was in prison. I just got out and I swear I’m going to kill them both.” He then glared at me as the elevator climbed.
What I did next might not have been the brightest course of action, but I was young, in a public place and reasonably sure that I was going to be able to get off that elevator in one piece, so I said, “Well, if you just got out of prison and you plan to do that – are you really sure you’re interested in going back?”
The body language of my elevator companion immediately changed. It was as if he’d never actually thought of that before. Just then, the elevator dinged for my floor. I quickly stepped towards the door as it opened and the only response I got was a soft pat on the back with the parting comment, “Hey, you know that’s good advice.”
Since that day, I’ve had countless other experiences with strangers who share personal things with me. In fact, today I went to get a haircut at an old-fashioned barber shop where sports is always playing on the television.
It’s a popular place frequented by men of all ages who read their favorite magazines while sipping a cold beverage from the fridge before their haircut. It’s a very masculine place, and the conversation always seems to focus on cars, sports, beer, pretty women or the best vacation spots you can visit in a motorized vehicle.
It’s probably one of the last places I’d expect a barber to express his fears and vulnerabilities, but today I was humbled as the man cutting my hair told me about his 18-month-old daughter and his family’s journey as they adjust to finding the best care they can for her newly diagnosed developmental disability.
I left with a new appreciation for the stresses parents face in coping with disabilities. I also gained a new understanding about how well Canada’s health-care system provides services that would not be affordable in other countries.
But it didn’t end there. Twenty minutes later, I was standing in line at the grocery store when another stranger started talking to me about his arthritic shoulder and congenital hip condition. He was convinced that someday he’d “end up walking on crutches like you.”
I didn’t quite know what to say to that one, so I just smiled and told him he’d better take lessons on how to get around on crutches in a Canadian winter. He smiled back, but I think my practical response killed any further discussion on the topic.
Anyway, I find it’s quite an adventure to go out and about. I never know what will happen or what I will learn about people. There are some shocking things strangers have said to me. Sometimes I’m inspired; other times I’m shocked by ignorance and occasionally, I feel a little bit anxious.
But I enjoy the unusual experiences I have, and I’m glad that people feel compelled to share bits of their lives with me. What’s the most memorable thing a complete stranger has shared with you?