When I was a young teenager in the early sixties, visiting my older sister one summer, my eight-year-old niece and I were crossing a broad street in Sacramento on a hot afternoon, dressed in shorts and nice cotton blouses, on our way to a park. There had been a lot of traffic and we finally took off from the curb during a lull. As we got half way across one lane, a group of teenage boys drove by in the other direction. One in the back seat closest to us rolled down his window and shouted, “Don’t fake it, just to get across the street!” I had originally expected that he was probably going to yell something more flattering or perhaps just a flirtatious hello. When I’m not in any pain or not fatigued, I tend to forget that I limp. In those days I was stronger, though my limp was worse then, because I had not yet started wearing the lightweight ankle support orthotic brace I sport today.
On this hot California valley day I was mortified, especially since it was the opposite of what I’d expected; my innocent niece looked up at me and said, “What did he mean?” I answered, “I think he meant he thought I was pretending to limp.” She just looked at me incredulously. When you grow up in the presence of a handicapped person, it’s hard to imagine someone “faking it.” I mean, that didn’t even make any sense; it is pretty obvious that one of my legs is simply not right. And given our summer outfits, it seemed easy to see that one leg was substantially smaller than the other, and that my foot hung loose at the end, causing me to “hitch up” my hip so my toe would clear the pavement. So maybe he was just a mean boy. They’re out there.
Or, maybe he wasn’t mean, just ignorant, or nervous about the concept of being handicapped. A lot of comments coming at crips which are seemingly “not nice” are a product of people’s discomfort –and often embarrassment –with disability. Rather than feel something like sadness, or the more advanced state of compassion, some would rather bury sensitivity and choose to ridicule in order to negate their own feelings of awkwardness. This happens, I think, more often among groups of people than with lone individuals. Something about the herd instinct, doing some daft deed that can single especially a young man out as a leader, even in the negative sense, because he’s been bold. And of course, when one starts it others may follow suit to exhibit their own bravado.
There’s a possibility the kid in Sacramento really thought I was “faking it,” and didn’t notice the difference in my legs, and in that case, I shake my head at the absurdity of the notion. He’s forgiven, at this late date.
Fortunately, this sort of taunt almost never happened to me once I was out of grammar school, other than small children telling me that I walk funny. Which I do.