Breaking the Ice – Wheelchair Style
During my starving college years in Boulder, Colorado, I had a job as a live-in caregiver for Margo, a woman with advanced MS. We were quite the team. I had destroyed my knee in a bad skiing accident, so I sported a full-length leg cast and crutches. Margo got around by using a wheelchair. Why she hired me is beyond my comprehension but somehow, we figured out how to get her around in her wheelchair and maneuver her in and out of my small, manual transmission hatchback, crutches, cast, wheelchair, and all. Five knee surgeries and two years later, the cast finally came off but it hardly mattered. She and I had our cast/crutches/wheelchair mobility routines down.
One of the things that I loved about Margo was her desire to get out and experience the world around her. Although she was unable to walk, needed help eating, and grew tired easily, she still got out and saw every possible thing that she could see, tried every restaurant, drank a beer at every pub, and insisted that I wheel her into every gift shop and trinket store in the area. She was a world-class “looky-loo.”
During those trips, oftentimes strangers would approach us and say the most asinine things. Sometimes it was annoying and other times we would be left shocked, puzzled, or laughing. I think they meant well; they just didn't know what to say or how to approach us so their attempts at conversation ranged from awkward to downright offensive.
When one is wearing a cast, one can only tolerate the question “What did you do to your leg?” so many times before it becomes seriously grating. As a result, down the entire length of my cast in huge capital letters I wrote “I BROKE IT WHILE SKIING.” Their curiosity satisfied; I was pretty much ignored after that. Unfortunately, that meant the focus of attention turned to Margo.
They would pry, wanting to know “what was wrong” with her. Sometimes they would offer magical cures for her MS ("Have you tried probiotics?" “Maybe you should stop smoking.”). Other times they would shower us with praise and call us both inspirations (which was fine unless it was laid on a tad too thick). Oftentimes they would opt to talk only to me about her as if she wasn’t there. Sometimes they would stoop over, change the tone of their voice, and talk to her as if she were a child, which was odd since she usually had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. It was a very eye-opening experience.
Margo and I started tossing around ideas about signs that she could pin to the back of her wheelchair to "set the proper tone" whenever someone approached us. One day, to go with the “I BROKE IT WHILE SKIING” message on my cast, we made the sign “I PUSHED HER DOWN THE MOUNTAIN” and pinned that to her wheelchair.
The entire mood of the day changed. People chuckled when they read our signs, started up normal conversations with us about regular topics like the weather, didn’t pry or offer advice, and overall, seemed genuinely friendly, positive, respectful, and relaxed. We used her wheelchair sign regularly.
Years later, at an Expo in Dallas that I was attending to promote Funny Parent Gifts, I developed a friendship with Tina, the creative and brilliant owner of Bright Kids, LLC. Our booths were near each other and we discovered that our senses of humor were equally warped. Getting a booth neighbor like Tina is a godsend when you’re stuck in your booth for hours and hours, days on end.
She was selling her Little Piggie Kids Shoehorns and I was promoting my humorous Customized Merchant Tote Bags. Traffic was painfully slow which gave Tina and I plenty of time to talk.
“You know,” she said one day as we were watching tumbleweeds blow by our booths, “Your humor is a bit… colorful. Fortunately for you, I know a community that appreciates colorful humor.”
She told me about how well her shoehorns have been received by the Adaptive Community. Due to their ergonomic shapes, children can grasp them more securely than a regular shoehorn and they love how bright, colorful, and adorable they are.
She suggested that I consider making wheelchair bags with my humorous artwork on them. “I think the Adaptive Community would love them,” she said.
At first, I was dubious. Wheelchair humor? Is that allowed? But then I remembered the daytrips with Margo all those years ago and my mind started churning. Nothing breaks the ice or thaws an awkward situation more effectively than well-placed humor. Because our signs gave us a way to move about comfortably with strangers, meeting new people became one of the highlights of our outings. Funny wheelchair bags could have the same effect.
I got to work on this new idea right there in my booth (God knows I had the time) and the result is this collection of humorous wheelchair and walker bags. If Margo would have had one of these bags, many of the situations that she and I encountered would have been much less awkward and tension filled. If people who were not used to being around someone in a wheelchair had felt more at ease, knowing that Margo had a sense of humor, they could have simply started the conversation with a chuckle and "I like your bag." She probably still would have been asked if she had tried probiotics, but at least a better rapport would have been established first.
I will always feel indebted to Tina for encouraging me to go in a direction that I would have never thought to go had I not had the good fortune of being her booth neighbor, and to Margo for hiring me, despite my cast and crutches, and then making the task of getting her out of her house job number one. The ripple effect of Margo and I and our homemade signs interacting with the world around us made our outings more enjoyable with a feeling of connectedness that I’m so grateful to have been a part of. I’m hoping that my wheelchair and walker bags promote the same types of connections.
CEO, Funny Parent Gifts
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