It was 1996, her name was Cassie.
I had expensive taste back then. I was in grade 7. She was the most popular girl in school and by far the best looking girl. It may have been sixteen and a half years ago, but I’m sure if we crossed paths now she would be the most beautiful woman I would ever see. It was pure lust. She had perfectly tanned skin, chestnut brown hair, legs for decades and the most radiant smile. I was never shy about my crushes. As soon as I was able I told her with all the faux confidence I could muster that I wanted to be her boyfriend. Of course, I was expecting a negative response, but was secretly hoping for the opposite. To my complete and utter amazement she said:
‘Of course I’ll go out with you, Todd. I’ve been hoping you would ask me out. I want to spend some time with you. Meet me on the school oval tomorrow at lunch time.’
In all my life I had never wished for 21 hours to go faster. That night I understood what puberty was for the first time. All those things the books tell you, the boners, the hormones racing and sex eliminating every other thought in the male brain.
Overnight the news of our improbable courtship had reached all three classes of Grade 7. What was going to happen? Would I get to kiss Cassie? Would she ask to sit on my lap? My journey to the oval was like leading a brigade of soldiers to battle in formation. I was so nervous.
There was Cassie waiting with her best friend Eliza who I had always loathed. When I saw them in tandem I knew I was doomed. I approached Cassie: she only said one sentence:
‘Why would I ever date a fucking cripple? You are the ugliest thing I have ever seen. You think you are so smart, but we fooled you.’
Cassie and Eliza laughed their heads off and high fived each other. I turned around in tears. The whole of grade 7 looked on in astonishment. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was fooled.
Unsurprisingly it is an unforgettable moment in my adolescence. Before Cassie shot me down in flames I was a naive but happy kid. I knew I was in a wheelchair, but it didn’t really bother me outside of my inability to play footy or cricket. That one joke hardened me though. It made me hate myself. It was the beginning of the jaded and cynical author you are reading today.
Throughout high school it happened a few more times. ‘You’re in a wheelchair so we can’t be friends’. It is the most nonsensical excuse possible, but if you can come up with credible excuses for this appalling behavior in teenagers there are many. Peer pressure, stupidity, and the cold superficiality of teens all are excuses to hide behind.
None of those excuses applied last night.
You already know that I am making every effort to find new friends now that I have moved to the Capital. Last week I thought I had found someone I had lots in common with. She is about to turn 30 in a few weeks. A scribe by trade she writes in a number of worthy publications on a subject, which I adore. In fact before connecting up with her I read a number of her columns without knowing her identity. ‘The Critic’ (as I will now call her) and I were a good match for a potential friendship. She has an outstanding breath of knowledge; we shared the same taste in literature, cited the same television shows as crucial influences and liked to go to the same places. Jackpot!
Conversation flowed, but I was being circumspect. I was strictly occupying the friend zone. Perhaps we might go to a movie, gig or have a coffee in the next week or two?
Then last night I got an email containing a lengthy explanation as to why ‘The Critic’ and I could never be friends. It essentially can be summarised, like it was in 1996:
I can’t be friends with you because you’re in a wheelchair.
Her reason? She cares too much about people!
You see ‘The Critic’ just broke up with a boyfriend who had a ‘chronic illness’. They had apparently broken up because of it. ‘The Critic’ became too invested in his welfare and not that of her own.‘The Critic’ was apparently so selfless she became totally dependent on him. Her goals were tied to his medical well being. ‘The Critic’ didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes again. This was the most flimsy of the ‘It’s not you it’s me!’ excuses.
I was utterly flabbergasted. The critic had advertised herself as a forward thinking progressive, with an interest in ‘Human Rights’. Perhaps she considered herself as the world’s only human? Nonetheless I thought I was reasonably measured in my immediate response: writing in an email that I was willing to cite this as a case of hesitancy while pointing out that my disability was not chronic. I was looking for a friend: not a nurse or a carer. I was not asking for sex, or a relationship just someone to hang out with. I thought all the points were pretty reasonable.
Except all I got was a retread of the same excuses in reply.
My second response was far more succinct:
‘Some day karma is going to bite you in the arse. I hope it bites hard. I’m disgusted.’
Initially I was skeptical about telling the above stories. But they need to be told. Patriots often claim that Australia is a tolerant and accepting society. It is not. Yes these are two extreme and harsh examples, but they are merely emblematic of the struggles my crippled compatriots and I fight on a daily basis.
Society thinks we are stupid.
Society thinks we cannot speak for ourselves
Society thinks we are not worthy of love
Society thinks that we are both a responsibility and a burden.
Society denies us basic human rights on a minute by minute basis.
Society thinks we are just like our chairs, a machine with no feelings: merely a tool for movement.
The worse part about those statements is the likely response to them. The community at large will laugh off all these claims and deny, deny, deny. I am apparently just an angry crip who exaggerates for dramatic effect.
I was neither saddened or angered by last night’s events. I did not cry, and didn’t express any anger outwardly. There was just a feeling of resignation. It has happened too many times to do anything about it. I have to accept that there are more people like Cassie, Eliza and ‘The Critic’ than society cares to admit. I will cop their prejudice and ignorance because I am an easy target. I am powerless to do anything more than share my story and hope that another crip is spared this bigotry just once.
Because it will continue to happen.