There were many times, as a child (and there have been as many as an adult), when a child approached me, often one I had never even met, to tell me, “You’re crippled.” And then would stand there and look at me, into my eyes or down at my leg, as if to say, “I’ve made this observation,” or “My mom told me you are crippled, so I’m telling you now. You are defective and you ought to know this.” As if I didn’t already. Did they think I was crippled and stupid? I’d reply, “I know.” And then just stare at the kid. Sometimes I was angry, and sometimes I was just shocked, embarrassed and sad. Or I’d say, “So what?” But I learned not to ask that, because it might unleash a list of other observations, such as “You can’t walk right. This is how you walk,” followed by a demo I always felt was exaggerated (but maybe it wasn’t). Or “You can’t run. You can’t catch me,” then the taunter would grab one of my belongings and run with it. Once in a while, they’d just answer, “Nothing,” to my “So what?!,” shrug shoulders and walk away. I always felt then that it was a small victory; that one more person had learned he or she didn’t make me cowed, that I was just straight with them, that they couldn’t upset me, that I was mentally fit, so there was something right about me. But there were times when I cried at home, alone.
Kids are often very forthright in that way, they are mostly innocent blurters, but they also can be awfully mean. Sometimes these kinds of comments were truly meant to hurt me and make it clear that I was one down from the taunter. Children like that need exemplary parents to show them how to gracefully encounter people who are different. (Not a mom who grabs them by the arm and shakes them.) And often they don’t have parents who know how to behave, either, so it falls to those of us who are different to find a way to suggest appropriate behavior. I was not always good at it. In fact, I see that in a lot of instances I was pissed off inside, and just wrote the person off as a jerk, when in fact he or she was simply ignorant. I know I have been sarcastic to a lot of people in my lifetime, and I guard against it now, but it took me decades to be calm about other people’s bad manners in this respect.
By the time I was into my thirties, although I still had significant anger about a lot of things, I did begin to see that people said or did things without thinking first, and that a lot of the time they didn’t know what they were talking about so it was not worthwhile to be upset. “Well, no,” I say brightly to the person who says, “Oh, what happened to your hip? Did you have surgery?” “I had polio,” then maybe we talk about that. Or to the child who says, “You don’t walk right!” I now say the same thing I said as a child, but with good cheer, “Yes, I know!” and give the kid a smile and some prolonged friendly eye contact.