There's a timid tap on my shoulder.
"Excuse me ma'am."
This person bends down toward me trying to gain my attention with wide eyes and a soft voice.
"Umm, excuse me, can I talk with you for a moment?"
Let me say first that, I am perfectly comfortable with talking to people and answering questions they have regarding my disability and my wheelchair when I am out in public. You have no idea how big of a conversation starter my wheelchair can be.
I will also say that, for myself, I have not chosen a formal religion. That doesn't mean I'm an Atheist though. I have no qualms with those that practice openly and are proud of their faith. Also, I am not offended by any who tell me that I am "in their prayers." I actually appreciate the sentiment that, in their way, they are wishing me well.
I'll even thank them for their kind words, as well as for their courtesy for talking with me and asking questions, instead of simply making assumptions and judgments. We would then exchange good byes and again be on our separate ways.
But more often than not, my encounters in public have become much more intense. Instead of " You're in our prayers." The line will be "Can I pray for you?" This is a very different conversation than what I previously described.
From this point, many of the women, sometimes men, will fill me in on their religious choice and other information they feel pertinent to justify why they had come up to me in the first place. Maybe tell me about their church or someone they know that may be in a similar situation. She might even tell me a little bit about her, then explain why I fit into her definition of "in need of prayer."
"I saw you over here in your wheelchair and saw you trying to reach that can of olive's from the shelf. I thought, well bless her heart. It's wonderful that you haven't given up. Good for you my dear. I thought that I'd offer my prayers and that I may help you heal your body."
Sometimes I will get asked what I have. Sometimes it's just why do I have a wheelchair. Then I'll be asked if I have faith or have asked for my forgiveness of my sins and to be saved. And every time, I am asked if I am willing to accept their deity into my heart.
The last question is usually paired with an explanation that if I do, then I will be healed, I'll be cured, that my disability will just disappear. I will just be able to stand from my chair and walk away as if I was never afflicted--if I just asked for forgiveness, if I just had their faith.
So wait a second, what is she telling me? Questions begin to run my thoughts. I must have done something really bad to be punished. I'd be curious to know what it was. If I'm not being punished, why would a loving deity let me or anyone else suffer with this or other incurable and terrible diseases?
And if my cure is just as easy as converting to a certain religion, wouldn't that mean that such things as diseases, homelessness, poverty and conflict, are all curable through prayer? If they are, why do they still exist? I know of many beauty queens that have declared their desires for world peace and their wish to end various forms of plight. What's with all the unanswered prayers?
Also, that would mean that she is assuming I have no faith or religion of my own. And if prayer works so well, why didn't my own prayers cure me?
"You will be rewarded for your suffering in Heaven," she'll say.
But I don't have a death wish. I don't want to save my happiness for afterlife.
What's so wrong with me just as I am, that seems to drive perfect strangers to be so intrusive as to stop me cold in public, just to explain to me that my disability is "the physical manifestation of my soul's sins for all to see," and that it is their religious duty to "right" me?
Stereotyping and pre-judgment creates these walls that already must be overcome right from the start. I don't think most of the people who I've bumped into in the many encounters I've had with this scenario, even realize that they are stereotyping me and perceiving themselves to be better than me because of their self-conceived higher moral standing and honorable intent.
These encounters can be quite sweet and innocent, but other times it can be quite damaging to self worth and your self image. Maybe it took everything you had that day just to be able to get to the store. It may have been a personal accomplishment for the day in itself and running into a woman like this can shatter you.
Believe me, when your life is challenging enough, these types of run-ins can be very devastating. It's important not to let difficulties of any kind stop you from being yourself. You need to develop a thick skin. We live in this society. Wrought with judgments and scrutiny. If you want to emotionally survive, you can't concern yourself with the negativity. You may not be perfect, but you can be impressive.
I am in the here and now and this is me. Flaws and all, even if mine are more obvious than some. There's absolutely nothing wrong with how I am, as I am. I use a wheelchair. I am also a strong spiritual woman, I love music and being creative. I don't care for olives or intolerant people. I prefer to live my life with every breathe I have, instead of holding it in waiting for a miracle. There's a lot about me if you'd care to get to know me. I intend to make the best of things and to be happy and healthy with the life and body I have. It is after all the only one I'll get.
I will smile politely and I'll thank her for taking an interest in me and my condition, and try and excuse myself from the situation. I'll finish up the conversation by wishing her a pleasant day. Only occasionally are people more persistent in converting me to their beliefs.
I wish I could tell you that this is a one time thing or that I hadn't heard of this from other people. But I find that a lot of us with physical differences face this situation no matter where we go or what we are doing and that this seems to occur almost every time at some point, when I leave my home. Whether I'm in a store, at an event or just wandering a public space, I seem to bump into this type of person where ever I seem to go.
Because of this, I've learned that judgement can be deployed through many forms, sometimes even masked in the best of intentions and noblest of causes. Don't shame, or guilt, or demean your fellow man because of the differences that make us unique, even with your religion to back you. Love thy fellow neighbor by accepting them wholly as they were created.