I will be turning 50 in just a few days, and I can’t honestly say that I’m growing old gracefully. I can’t really accept the fact that the aging process affects me just like it does everyone else. As a result, I tend to mistakenly assume that I can do the same things I did as a much younger man until my body reminds me that I am mistaken.
I got one of those reminders a few weeks ago when I was out on the tennis court. I had recently started playing again after not doing so for a number of years. I was initially pleased at how well I could still cover the court. I was pleased right up until that moment I sprinted across the court to get to a shot and heard a “pop” in my lower right leg.
Let me tell you, there are certain sounds that you never want to hear coming from inside your body — and the sound of a muscle tearing is definitely one such sound. It turned out that I had a grade 2 calf strain, which is apparently a fairly common tennis injury, especially for people in my age range.
So I am currently in a rehab mode. I am able to walk with only a slight limp now, but the first week I could only move very slowly and with a very pronounced and noticeable limp. I stayed home and didn’t do much the first couple of days, but after that I started going out in public a bit. I noticed something while I was hobbling around in the aisles of Target and Kroger, and it was something that bothered me.
When you can’t get around very well and can only move slowly and awkwardly, some people look at you differently. You can feel their eyes on you, and sometimes you catch them looking at you with a sort of disgust. It’s almost as if you can hear them thinking “what’s wrong with you, and why are you out in public?”
I also ended up feeling like I did back when I tried to drive my old under-powered Pontiac 1000 out on the Interstate — like I was slowing everyone down and they didn’t appreciate it. I could feel people “tailgating” me if I was in a narrow aisle and they would pass me quickly at their first opportunity.
I’m not going to pretend I know what it feels like to live with a serious physical handicap — I have an injury that should heal relatively quickly and my time of feeling different and looked-down-upon will probably be brief. But the experience has made an impression on me, and hopefully will make me more sensitive to people who have to deal with real disabilities in the future.
Just in case you’ve been fortunate enough to not have experienced dealing with a noticeable physical handicap and you’re interested in being a decent human being, I’ll share a couple of rules of behavior I’ve made for myself to try and follow in the future when I encounter someone with a physical or mental handicap.
Rule No. 1: Don’t stare. A disabled person is probably already somewhat self-conscious about being different without being rudely glared at. They may be different from you physically, but they have feelings just like you. Maybe instead of staring mutely you could smile and say hello. How hard is that?
Rule No. 2: Don’t tailgate. It irritated me more than I can say when I could feel someone’s presence inches behind me when I was moving as fast as I could down a narrow store aisle. Unless you have some life-or-death emergency you are dealing with you don’t need to be in such a hurry that you run up on someone like that. Don’t be a jerk.
It really just comes down to the fact that people who are disabled in some way have a lot to deal with, and they are doing the best they can. Maybe they can’t walk as well as you or are in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t make them any less of a person who deserves to be treated with respect.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at email@example.com.