Certainly all of my life, at least from grammar school through today, I have had moments when I turned to see a child trying to imitate my walk. It was always disconcerting, and of late, just a little surprising, as when you realize toilet paper is stuck to your shoe and trailing along behind. When I matured, I could finally smile at the pantomime, and think, “Do I really walk like that??!” and assess the imitation for accuracy instead of its potentially pointed accusation: “You walk weird.” And those occasions have given me many opportunities to tell children the reason I walk like this, even when their parents were grabbing their arms and telling them, “Stop it! That girl (or woman) is crippled! Don’t make fun of her!”
That is actually always worse for me than what the kid is doing. Sometimes the mom apologizes with embarrassment (always a tinge of “sorry you are disabled”) and sometimes she just scurries her kid away, too embarrassed to look at me. It’s actually more painful to hear someone say, “That woman is crippled” than it is to see a child imitate me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the third person referral. I prefer the eye contact moms, because then I can say, “It’s OK. Happens all the time with children; they don’t know what is wrong and are just experimenting. Don’t worry about it.”
I used to tell little kids I had a disease “when I was about your age, that caused my leg not to grow. One of my legs is small and short.” I’d do this especially if they asked (which again mothers will often try to stifle, but, I think it’s healthy for a child to show curiosity about differences). A couple of decades ago, I realized that my explanation scared small children, to think that they could get a disease that would deform them as it had me. So I simplified my explanation to “One of my legs is shorter than the other.” If the why’s ensued and we came to my having polio, I would always throw in, “But YOU won’t get polio, because you have had your vaccinations. They didn’t have vaccinations when I was a little girl.” Leave them to talk to their moms about vaccinations if they have not had them.
I’m walking along a sidewalk downtown somewhere and see my reflection, stunned to see that I am limping badly. And I want to just ignore it, and know that many others cannot. If I am alarmed to see it, and I have lived with it most of my life, what must go through their heads? What went through the head of the middle-aged man in an expensive sports car (and haircut) who stared at my polio foot that one day, without looking at my face, while I walked into the library? While I was waiting for eye contact? I felt like an anomaly, an object, not a human, when he did that.
We are human. We are curious. We have feelings. We make mistakes.