My Wobbly Bicycle, 161

Posted by on Dec 12, 2018 | 13 comments

A few flags are still at half-mast for George H. W. Bush. Some of us didn’t like him any better than we liked Ronald Reagan. Yet as I listened to the tributes to Bush when he died, I heard them—probably you did too— foregrounded by the depravity of our current president. Now we see with different eyes.

A friend reminded me that George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Which matters to me personally. Jerry has needed, at different times in the last few years, a wheelchair, a walker, and a cane. I’m alert for the curb, the high step, the steep incline, the lack of handrails, the narrow aisles. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the sloping curbs with non-skid nubs.

My awareness has been sharpened gradually. My father’s been in a wheelchair for over four years, since the aneurysm in his leg couldn’t be repaired and the leg had to be amputated. My sister had to use a walker for a while. You can’t really see what’s needed until you’re there.

People tend not to see clearly until they’re made to see. When the sea water laps at our feet, we will all finally see. In the case of disabilities, no one much noticed what was needed until Bush signed the ADA in 1990. No, that’s not quite right. What I remember is what was unspoken:  “That’s too bad. We’ll help lift your wheelchair over the curb, but there are some places you just can’t go.” Or, “You can’t be a Walmart greeter because you’re in a wheelchair. We don’t want to project that image.”

I don’t ever remember seeing a bus with a wheelchair lift.

Making a law, of course, is ever so much better than relying on random kindnesses. It changes the relationship between those who need help and those who help. In all cases. In this particular case, it elevates the disabled to citizens with full rights, not people to be pitied. It costs money to remodel a bathroom. A lot of businesses raised hell, but after a string of successful lawsuits, things started to change.

But beyond laws, there’s seeing. Sensitivity. A friend who’s used a wheelchair for years told me of being stuck in a pubic bathroom all night, alone, because the door was too heavy, the handle in the wrong position for her, and her cellphone had died. She said she yelled, she pounded on the door, she sang, and finally just slept. The next morning the custodian came in and screamed at the woman slumped in the chair.

Sensitivity to what’s needed requires seeing the other person. It requires being the other person.

Let’s see. If I were in a wheelchair, could I push this door open?

Okay, the über rational would say, helping damaged people only weakens the gene pool so that a greater and greater percentage of people are born deficient. Before I get all righteously indignant at that cold thought, I wonder myself, how many people can we let into the country, how many starving people can we save, how many sick people can we afford to cure?

But damn, what does it mean to be human? We have these massive brains. So do robots. But humans can feel what others feel. We have an astounding combination of problem-solving power and complex emotions. We have the possibility of seeing beyond the mundane.

What are we going to do, then? I don’t know, but it seems to me that if we want to remain human, there’s no choice but to suffer with those who suffer, make decisions based on compassion even if it mightily inconveniences us. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” That’s from the book of Mark, but I’m sure it appears in all religious traditions.  I’d suggest it for a major campaign slogan for the next election.

When he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, George H. W. Bush’s ended his remarks like this:

“I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless you all.”

Something there is that does not love a wall.


  1. What a perfect ending.

    • Thanks, Ruth. And Merry Christmas!

  2. Love the thread (and the feeling) weaving from disabilities to immigration

    • All part of the package, right?

  3. This was lovely, Fleda. Last night we were talking about compassion at the Sangha and fortuitously I am reading a book by the Dalai Lama which also talks about compassion and its meaning. And I love your quote from Mark; I came to know of it when reading the play “A Man For All Seasons” and I have loved it ever since. Thank you for this essay and for the deep understanding of disability and the importance of compassion.

    • Thanks, Yasmin. Sorry to take so long to respond.

  4. HW was, in the light of today’s filter, something from a better time, but of course there was the Iran Contra Affair and that he pardoned five people that were going to trial for obstruction of justice, which has echos even today. In particular he pardoned those who might have called him as a witness.

    • Yep. I know. Nothing is simple.

  5. I find myself using the hand rails a lot these days in my wbblyness. Your bicycle isn’t the only thing wobbly these days.

    • Yep, I know. You will be better, dear sis.

  6. Thank you.

  7. Yes. “Let the shameless wall of exclusion come tumbling down.” Yes and then again, Yes. Thank you for this essay, Fleda.

    • Thanks, Ann. I’m glad to hear from you.

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