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“I’m a Little Disabled”

I saw him walking around the store with a basket rather than a cart. He was wearing a bicycle helmet with a mirror on the side, so he obviously came by bike, but how would he fit his items into a bike basket? I remember when I rode a bike and I got special baskets so that I’d have room for groceries, but I wasn’t sure about this now.

Standing near the peaches and talking on the phone, he said, “Peaches, you want peaches? Okay, four?”

Just then, as I selected fruit, he turned to me and I could see some telltale facial features that told me he had challenges that I didn’t. My nature being what it is, I told him to be sure to keep the fruit in the refrigerator because this market did that and, once you left it out, it ripened very quickly.

Back on the phone call which was continuing. “You have to keep them in the frige when I get home,” he said. “Okay, you want what?” Looking at me in a questioning manner, he said, “Where are the apricots? Are these apricots?” Yes, they were.

“I’m a little disabled, so could you help me?” I told him, “You’re doing fine” and proceeded to pick out apricots and tell him how to select them. Pointing out bruises and spots to him, he watched intently until I had picked out four for his plastic bag.

“My name’s Tommy,” he said almost casually as he looked at the fruit. I told him my name and he repeated it back to me. Then he walked away with his basket and fruit, still on the phone.

He must have been in his early to mid-fifties and I suspect the person on the phone was his mother who would be in her seventies at least. So, he’d been sent to the store but, thanks to cell phones, he had the guidance and support he needed to shop alone.

How would he do without her, I wondered and that simple “I’m a little disabled” repeated in my head. No shame, just a simple statement of fact and I’m sure his mom was responsible for helping him with his self-esteem on that issue. Quickly, he was lost in the maze of aisles and people with shopping carts.

The interaction gave rise to one of my passions; people who are not even “a little disabled” who get disability placards for their cars. I once heard a physician tell a group, “I give disability cards to anyone who wants one. You think I’m going to tell them no?” Yeah, Sam, you should tell them “No” because there are people out there with real disabilities who can’t walk well and need to have their cars near the entrance.

And there are those who believe they, by virtue of their age, are entitled to one of these placards and they leave them dangling from the rear-view mirror for all to see. BTW, in my state, those placards are not to be left dangling like that but have to be put up only when you’re in a spot for persons who are physically handicapped. No one is permitted, by law, to ask what their disability is and that gives carte blanche to those who would abuse this privilege.

Yes, I know. Some people have cardiac or lung conditions or any one of a variety of invisible impairments that deserve these placards, but there are those who are arrogant enough to want them just to be near the entrance. I recall a woman I interviewed for a book I was writing on multiple sclerosis who said that the supermarket where she shopped had put the handicapped parking quite far from the store entrance. She and her neighbors complained and the spots were moved closer.

Another woman I met at a town health fair told me that her wheelchair-bound husband could not enter the town’s community center because metal stanchions had been placed in front of the side door. This meant they had to go into the street for at least a block to where there was a curb cut and enter via the front doors. It was a dangerous situation which prompted them not to use the community center which meant they were left out of many free activities. They’d mentioned it to staff at the center, but nothing was done.

Which of us is responsible for our fellow-man/woman? All of us. I have a friend who makes it her business to photograph cars parked illegally in handicapped parking or to report signs that haven’t been updated. Yes, the fine for this type of parking is now (in my town) $250, points on your license and possibly community service.

I don’t think that’s unfair. What’s unfair is preventing someone who needs that parking space from using it just so someone else won’t be inconvenienced.

Someone else I know, who has a serious respiratory and orthopedic problem, didn’t ask for a handicapped placard. Why? She said there were people worse than she who needed the spots. Ultimately, when her orthopedic problems became worse, she did receive the placard, but still tries to leave those spots for people in wheelchairs or who use walkers. Still caring for others before herself.

I suppose you could say this is food for thought and that’s a good thing. Sometimes we forget how fortunate we are and, as a rabbi reminded me today on Twitter, we have to find 100 things each day for which we are thankful. Not being “a little disabled” has to be one of them.

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