I’ve been thinking often for the past few days about today being Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King had a dream. That all people would be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin. That there would be no prejudice, no preconceived ideas. That nobody would look at anyone else and have the thought that they were “less than.” He would have been 89 years old today, and he gave his life for the idea that the playing field should be leveled for everyone.
Dr. King is a man that I greatly admire. And for different reasons, we have some of the same values. My advocacy efforts are all about society not considering people with disabilities to be “less than.” I advocate for an accessible and inclusive society because I want the playing field to be equal for everyone.
I have a dream as well. A world without barriers. Both physical and attitudinal.
John, a friend of mine told me a story last night. He and his wife went out to a restaurant over the weekend because they wanted to have a romantic dinner. Kristen is a quadriplegic and she uses a power wheelchair. They had made a reservation. When they got there, they were seated at a table for six, away from all the other tables that were obviously set up for couples. They complained. They wanted a table for two. And although the staff eventually complied, my friends were given a hard time. John said the whole exchange was incredibly awkward. In talking through the experience online, John and I came to the conclusion that society doesn’t expect people with disabilities to be romantic, and in this case, the staff at the restaurant acted accordingly. John and Kisten were forced to ask why their reservation was so much less important than the reservations of other customers. That kind of thing just shouldn’t happen. It’s just not right.
Singing in the choir was something that I did throughout my high school career. For three of those years, I had an instructor that I loved. He was a great guy who considered me to be simply another one of his students. That is the way that I like it. He even put effort into incorporating my wheelchair into some of our performances. That was so much fun. Unfortunately, things were different when I was a senior. That year the choir had a new director and he didn’t like me very much. During the Christmas performance, he put me behind a prop on stage so that nobody could see my wheelchair. When I asked him about it the next day, his response was something like “Well, I wanted the performance to be perfect.” He made sure that I was not included in any of our choir performances for the rest of the year. Looking back, there were a whole lot of “not good enough” moments for me in that class that year.
Throughout high school, my wheelchair also never fit under the tables in the cafeteria. When I am not close enough to a table, I have a hard time eating because most of the time lots of food tends to drop in my lap. It’s messy and embarrassing and makes me feel like I have terrible table manners. As a teenager, that made me really self-conscious about eating in front of anyone. Sometimes at lunch, I pulled my wheelchair next to a large brick pillar in the middle of the cafeteria. It was the only thing my wheelchair could comfortably fit against. But it also sort of put me on display. I didn’t like that. Because there was no better option, most days I ended up eating my lunch in the bathroom. It was just easier all the way around. Nobody made me do that, I just felt like an outsider at the time. There are some days that I wish I could go back to that shy awkward lonely kid and tell her that everything is eventually going to be okay.
For various reasons, I try not to talk very much about those kinds of experiences. They are a tangible reminder that the world hasn’t always seen me as an equal. Sometimes they still don’t. And that hurts. It makes me sad. But it also reminds me that we have a whole lot of work still to do.
So, just like many other people who have a dream of equality that includes a world without barriers for anyone, I will keep on keeping on. Advocating for what I know is right.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will tell you. Big dreams are worth fighting for.