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Have you noticed when you are in a wheelchair, people treat you quite differently? People will come over to us-or rather to me, and start talking as though Nancy wasn't there. People have come over and shouted at her as though being in a wheelchair makes you hard of hearing. Or they will come over and start talking to her as though she was a small child.Many people are afraid to touch someone in a wheelchair, not that they think you have some contagious disease, but because they are afraid they will hurt you. Maybe you would break if they gave you a hug. Or at worst, and unfortunately all too often, they simply ignore you altogether. We have been in situations where there is a room full of people and no one will come over to start a conversation or otherwise engage us and make us a part of what's going on. You begin to think maybe your deodorant isn't working or some such.
What can you do to break the ice and get people to interact with you?
We have done a neat thing that really works. We get past-on decals with the name and flag of every country we visit, and attach them to the wheels using bicycle reflectors.
The reflectors don't show up all that nicely in this photo but it is a great picture of the Golden Pagoda, built in the 1300's by the first shogun in Kyoto, Japan. I'll find a better example for the decals somewhere in our collection of photos.
Well, that didn't take long. Here is a better picture of the decals on the wheels on Nancy's chair, framed by the train station in one of the southern cities of China. Even though the shot is too small for you to read the various countries, you get the idea.
A lot of people we meet collect pins of countries they visit. This is a good idea, but pins don't show up that well. With the decals or patches, the places you have visited are clearly visible to those around you as well as to those across the room or airport waiting area. It is a great way to break the ice. But it is important that you stick to one unbreakable rule:
Don't make the mistake of cheating on this. We post only decals of countries we have actually visited. I know some people count places where their plane has merely stopped over, but this defeats the whole purpose of the decals.
Here is what we mean.
If an Italian spots the decal for Italy on our chair and comes over to chat, we want to be able to converse about the cities or regions we have been in. The ice breaker is our ability to talk about the hodge-podge of traffic on the Grand Canal in Venice, or a delightful meal we had at a hidden away trattoria in Naples only the 'locals' would know about. If you've not been to Italy, it won't take an Italian long to find out you're just a fraud. And rather than make a new friend, you may offend someone by pretending to be something you are not.
Try this idea. You'll be amazed at the response you'll get. And if you are open to it, you may find yourself traveling to the same city your new friend calls "home". You may be invited to meet the family or go out to a favorite restaurant. Contrary to popular belief, everyone loves Americans and welcomes the opportunity to ask about life in America.
Remember, the whole idea is to get some interaction with the people around you. When you do that, your trip becomes something more than just a trip. We have always found the more we get to interact with the people in whatever country we happen to be visiting, the more memorable and enjoyable the trip is. Face it. If you travel widely, after a time you have seen so many castles, cathedrals, temples, and crown jewels that things start to blend together. You come to realize what you remember about places you have visited are not the things, but the people.
Here's something which actually occurred during our first trip to the Far East. An amusing little story, and quite sweet. It was our first trip to China, that strange and beautiful country. Everywhere we went, we were met with such a variety of human reaction to our presence. Walking through one of the serene gardens in Beijing, a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties burst from out of nowhere, came over to us, and started speaking English.
A Chinese "High Five" Beijing, 1997
But it was almost like a foreign language, because she was using the words in a most unusual way.
" I am utterly amazed to you and become acquainted with you! It was fated in my ultimate destiny that we should meet! How fortunate for the preservation of my very soul that I should happen upon you at this most popicious moment!
My first reaction was, Is she on drugs? Is this a put-on? Who talks like that?" As she continued to speak, she explained with a great amount of pride, that she had taught herself English by reading books in the library of someone her parents worked for. She did not know this, of course, but when she told me the titles of the books she had read, I realized her exposure to our language had been derived from mostly romance novels written perhaps a century ago. The language was archaic, and the phrasing of the sentences was unnatural for modern for modern times. We continued walking through the gardens, and she continued along with us, chatting away, obviously pleased at her abilities to carry on a conversation with someone whose native language was English.As we walked, an interested crowd began to form around us, growing larger and larger until it was becoming difficult to advance. It seems all of the onlookers were anxious to participate in conversation with someone whose native language was English.
We kept up a written correspondence with this delightful woman for nearly two years, and I mailed her several packages containing English language novels of a more contemporary style of dialog. Although we have since lost touch with her, she provided us with a most enjoyable afternoon, and we can be sure her life was improved by our reaching out to her. In one of the last notes we received from her, she sent this to us-
Yes, we have lots of photographs to remind us of the great experience we had in Beijing-Tienanmen Square, where the student protest of 1989 took pace; the Forbidden City; Chinese construction using bamboo scaffolds around buildings, where here in the States they would have used steel girders. But when we THINK of Beijing, one of the first memories that jumps into our minds is that "High Five" in the garden.
We can still see her face, just as clear as if it were yesterday...