Scott Rochat: A Failure of Imagination
Once in a while, Missy and I will decide it’s time to roll. Literally.
We don’t break out the wheelchair too often. But when we’re headed for somewhere where the distances are too great or the durations too long to be easily handled by Missy’s uncertain balance, we’ll load her up. Most of the time, it’s great fun for us, especially when I put on bursts of speed or sudden swerves to get her laughing and cheering.
And then, there are the other times.
Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk rises, just a bit. Not enough to be noticed by a pedestrian. But enough to temporarily turn a small wheelchair into a stuck grocery cart, until I lean and lift to pop it over the seam in the pavement.
Sometimes we find a place where the sidewalk runs high and the nearest slope to get on or off is far away.
Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk ends. Not the beginning of a Shel Silverstein land of whimsy and enchantment, but where the sudden appearance of dirt, grass, or broken landscape in mid-block says “Oh, you wanted the other side of the street.”
When it happens, Missy growls. And I fume or sigh and look around.
For a moment, we’re not just anybody else. We’re living in someone else’s world. A someone who didn’t see us coming.
Of course, you don’t have to be disabled to have a walk made challenging. Sometimes you just have to be the wrong kind of astronaut.
Most of the country heard about a planned spacewalk a few days ago. It was supposed to be historic, the first NASA walk into the Great Beyond made by two female astronauts.
One of the women had to stay aboard the station instead. Why? Because there was only one medium-sized spacesuit ready for use. And both of them needed it.
Yes, getting to orbit was actually easier than getting out the door.
Funny. For a moment, I thought I heard a Missy growl.
In many ways, we’re an amazingly imaginative species. We’ve sent people to the moon, sent data around the world in an instant, brought superheroes and fantastic adventurers to life on the movie screen (even if we can’t always give them decent dialogue). From biology to fashion, we constantly push back the borders on every side.
But in other ways, we can be just as amazingly limited.
Ask a left-hander who’s ever had to use an old-style school desk or a random pair of scissors.
Ask someone who’s 6 feet 4 inches walking through a building made when the average male height was 5-feet-6.
Ask the 9-year-old girl last year who found that the basketball shoes she was excited about had labeled all the smaller sizes as “boys.”
I’m sure many of us could add to the list of examples, from the seemingly trivial to the potentially life-threatening. Usually not from active malice, but because “we never thought of that.”
It’s so easy to do. We get used to a type, so much so that we stop seeing it.
And then the assumption gets challenged. And everyone gets to do a double take.
It affects the things we make and the stories we tell (and who gets to be the hero in them). It affects how we interact with the world, and with each other. It affects whether we even see that there’s an “other” at all.
It’s where imagination meets empathy. And in that place, we not only remember that other people matter, but try to envision what “mattering” means. Beyond our own race, gender, level of ability, or anything else.
We’ll screw up. It’s inevitable. We’re human. But if we’re making the effort to see, to learn, to understand, to put ourselves in the place of another - just maybe our vision wont be so nearsighted, so often.
The more we can do that, the more easily we can all roll along.