When We’re De-Elevated
Posted Jan. 30, 2015
My family and I went to see the famed Rockefeller Christmas tree, and it was more crowded than anywhere I’ve ever been. However, because my power wheelchair has an elevating seat that places me at 5 foot 7 inches tall, I worked my way through the crowd slowly but surely, eye to eye with those moving about, and people smiled at me, gingerly moving aside as needed for my 24-inch-wide power wheelchair to pass.
As we got closer to the tree, the crowd became so dense that I couldn’t see the ground, merely following the heads in front of me. Suddenly my power wheelchair dropped down a medium-height curb leading to the tree. Although the unexpected curb startled me, all was fine and we continued, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd, finishing with a classic family photo of the tree behind us.
We worked our way back through the crowd, and I watched carefully for the curb, knowing that while I couldn’t climb it while elevated, I could lower my seat to standard wheelchair height and safely drive up it.
As I reached the curb, the crowd continued flowing around me — that is, until I lowered my seat. Suddenly, at typical wheelchair height, my world changed. It was literally darker, more confined and, most shocking to me, I became invisible. While moments earlier I was at standing height, level with the crowd, now people were slamming into me, falling on me, oblivious to the fact that I was “down there.” I’d gone from a person in the crowd to suddenly invisible and of no stature simply by lowering my seat.
I yelled to my fiancée and, in a panic, I charged the curb, clipping people along the way. It felt like it was life or death — I was both fighting and fleeing.
Once up the curb, I quickly elevated my seat and as people immediately began safely flowing back around me, I took a deep breath, composed myself, and realized a universal truth: Being invisible to society is terrifying.
For me, that was an experience I’ve culturally known in other ways as a man with a disability. Beyond the change in physical stature I described with my elevating seat, I’ve been de-elevated in social stature at times.
I was fortunate amidst the crowd at Rockefeller Center that eve because at the touch of a button I elevated back to being seen. However, for many, the experience of being de-elevated often isn’t so easily resolved. When we’re dismissed by others and made to feel invisible, there is no button to push. Rather, the experience of being made invisible based not on our character, but on the ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination of others … well … just hurts.