International Day of Tolerance

Nov 16, 2015
Tagged with: International Day of Tolerance

On November 16, I will be celebrating the United Nation’s International Day for Tolerance by doing what I usually fail to do; I will pack away my assumptions in my bag when I interact with people. This conscious effort is difficult for someone who looks different compared to the societal norm, someone with a physical disability or someone who can’t interact in a socially acceptable way because of their limitations is daily confronted with intolerance.

It can be hard for a person with a disability not to become bitter or not to hold onto assumptions about each new able-bodied person they meet. But tolerance is a two way street; the people on either side of discrimination have to remember to show fairness and equality to whatever party comes their way.

I learned this through begging for money. One fall while traveling in Germany, I inadvertently became a street begger and as such learned a great deal about tolerance.

Strangers daily approach me to ask why I’m in a wheelchair. I have an approachable face and a friendly demeanor, so small chat with the person waiting in line for the bathroom with me can quickly turn in to asking about my medical past. I understand; when you see a person who is paraplegic, there’s assumedly a story about how they got in their chair and the stranger is curious.

In this instance, Dusty and I were at the main train station in Stuttgart and were on our way to Munich for our first Octoberfest. While I checked the overhead screen for our train, Dusty ran to the bathroom. (**Read: Girl in wheelchair, appears alone = looks approachable, helpless and in need of immediate assistance) An elderly lady standing close by asked me if I needed help reading the sign. I thanked her and said no, but not assertively enough for she then asked where I was going. I’m a friendly person and I answered her, telling her (in my broken German and then apologetically in English) that we were going to Munich and I was excited to see Octoberfest. In her grandmotherly way, she patted my shoulder and said in English that I would have a good time but why was I in a rollstuhl (wheelchair)?

At this point I should say that I used to explain about my accident to anyone who asked. I only realized this year that my accident, my past, is personal information and I have the right to protect it. I felt obligated to tell people who were curious, that I owed them an explanation for my disability and their uncomfortableness with my body. That is complete nonsense! No one is obligated to expose themselves about their disabilities to strangers.

I hadn’t reached that conclusion yet, so I did tell her but rather resentfully. She no longer was looking so grandmotherly and all I really wanted was for Dusty to come back so we could hop on the train. She then reached into her purse dangling from her arm and pulled out a 5 Euro note and placed it in my lap. “Nein, nein (no, no)”, I tried saying in my limited German, “Al ist gut (all is good)”. The smiling elderly woman replied in English, “No, is for you. Is for coffee together” and pointed at Dusty returning behind me. She turned and was gone, leaving me with a 5 Euro note and bewilderment.

As the seconds past after her departure, a sinking feeling of shame and confusion weighed heavy in my stomach. I was left me feeling like I had just been paid for letting her feel altruistic about helping a girl in a wheelchair.  Did I just accidently beg for money? 

We boarded our train and with the passing of the German countryside soothing my bruised ego, I thought about tolerance. Given her age, I truly should not have been too surprised that her reaction to my disability would be to help me by giving me money. I’m only the second generation of the wheelchair using demographic that goes out in the world independently, that live successful lives, who make money on their own and contribute to society. In her generation, a disabled person meant an invalid person more likely than not. I surprise people of older generations when I tell them I have a college degree or when they see me riding the bus alone. The cultural expectation of the limitations of a person with a disability are far greater than reality even for my generation, so it makes sense that this older woman reacted to me the way she did. In a historically Catholic country like Germany, seeing someone less fortunate than yourself generally meant a guilt-ridden impulse to empty your pockets. In her, she wasn’t being rude but instead doing what she thought was expected of her. 

My expectations are different, but I’m from the Yes, We Can! generation of wheelchair users. So I can relax and know that my fellow coworkers of my age won’t have been taught to treat me like I’m not quite as capable of being a human, but I may run into that every once in a while on a train. So I rolled to the Diner car on the train and bought myself a nice Café Au Lait with those 5 Euros. And today, whenever I encounter intolerance, I think about my 5 Euro Grandmother and remember that the street to tolerance goes both ways. Happy International Tolerance Day!


Author: Julia Rodes

  • bobl07

    It is usually when we go overseas that we can how much we have improved with accessibility.