Years ago, while I was living in an apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, and attending nursing school, a local woman by the name Maria and I became best of friends and eventually roommates. She was Portuguese, with thick black hair, full lips, and a curvaceous body. Warm, beautiful, and exuberant, every guy who met her literally drooled over her, including my own brother. Maria would come and visit me often, walking the four blocks from her home and back again, oftentimes in the dark.
Women, young and old and in-between, all share a fear when walking alone at night. They fear being attached, raped, killed. According to a sociological study I read years ago, this is the number one fear of women. Men’s number one fear? Being laughed at.
I asked Maria one night as she was about to leave the apartment if she was afraid. The Navy station wasn’t far away. One of my fellow nursing students had been attached one night in the dorm not long before. Someone followed her home, watched for her light to go on, and when she fell asleep, lifted the window and beat her head with a stick with a nail in it. She almost died.
My apartment was right across the street from the dorm that once served as the original hospital. This is what Maria told me: “When I walk home at night, I walk with one stiff leg so that anyone who passes me thinks I am disabled.”
I laughed and wondered at the wisdom of doing such. Like most, I had a mother who taught me “not to stare” at anyone who might be different than me–the deaf kid who talked differently, or the obese guy, or the man who had a disease that made walking difficult, if not impossible.
But I wanted to stare. I wanted to stare into the mystery that presented itself. I wondered what would it be like to not be able to see, to trust a dog to lead you across a dangerous road? What would it be like to have to be carried or carted wherever I went because my legs didn’t work, or had been cut off, or were never there in the first place?
But I remember feeling then, and still do, a sharp stabbing pain in my chest when I saw such a person. I wanted to acknowledge them without making them feel bad about themselves. I wanted to have a conversation with them, find out what it was like to be them. Teaching me not to stare may have been good manners, undoubtedly, but it also made me afraid to show compassion of which I had, and have, an overabundance. Such “manners” taught me to be “uncomfortable” around those who were disabled in some way, ill-equipped and insecure on how to be “comfortable.”
Maybe it’s time to encourage a greater dialogue between those who are disabled and those who aren’t so that the world would stop pretending not to see and stop being so afraid.