26 Aug 2015
By: Steven Schiraldi
Some of you who are reading this blog post already know my backstory. For all the first-timers, let me fill you in on the three things you should know to understand the essence of me. Listed in order of importance, 1) music is my life, 2) I hate being the center of attention and 3) I have a disability and choose to live the majority of my life in a wheelchair. The language in that last statement was chosen very carefully and will come up again later.
For as long as I can remember, music has been a driving force in my life and gives me a feeling that nothing else can. Any emotion I have or life matter I am dealing with can be channeled into music. I don’t think words can properly express what music has brought to my life. It can also pull me into the zone in which I feel most comfortable, solitude. Music allows me to escape to my own little world where I can be myself. For most of my life, people have called me a hermit or a homebody before and I have embraced those labels. I truly do loathe having people stare at me and make me the center of attention. I believe that my disability is one of the reasons why. I have gone through life as “the one in the wheelchair” and getting the question “what happened to you?” I stick out like a sore thumb in most public places and my wheelchair automatically gives strangers a conversation starter. What most people fail to realize is that it’s not the conversation I want to have when I’m trying to create a meaningful relationship with someone.
I had a recent incident where all three of these aspects of my life came into play. It was a Saturday night and two nights prior I had finished the coursework for my Master’s in Social Media from the University of Florida online. I had been working on this degree for two years, first while living in Tucson and finally completing it while living in Las Vegas. I was happy to be done and wanted to celebrate in a way that would make me happy. So my parents and I decided to go and listen to a local cover band at one of the hotels. Listening to live music is one of the only things that makes me truly happy. The only thing that ruins that natural high is when some stranger changes it from a fun night out to a pity party for “the one in the wheelchair.”
Let me set the scene for you. I was sitting at a table with my parents, subtly dancing at said table and enjoying myself. The band starts playing one of my favorite songs of the moment (along with the majority of America), “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. I am no stranger to dance floors and when a good song comes on, I dance. People are often shocked by this, because in their minds, I have a disability and it’s a miracle that I’ve even left my house. This statement, which thankfully does not apply to everyone, was proven a minute later when this woman starts dancing with me. I’ve been on enough dance floors to know a pity dance when I see one. This woman literally stopped dancing with her husband so she could dance with me because she felt bad for me. I just let her dance, because unlike her, I’m not an intentionally rude person. One pity dance wasn’t going to kill me.
The next song is when the situation turned from one pity dance to potentially obsessive behavior. This woman started putting her hands on me and my chair and whispering in my ear the three words that always make me cringe, “you inspire me.” Yes, because I’ve decided to leave my house instead of being curled up in bed feeling sorry for myself, I’m inspiring. Are you freaking kidding me?! I signaled for my mom to come on the dance floor and save me, which she tried to do. Even though it was perfectly clear that I was now dancing with my mom and no longer wanted to dance with this other woman, not enough money in the world could’ve bought her a clue that’s what was happening. She literally stepped in front of my mom to dance and proceeded to bump my wheelchair, because that’s totally a way to make friends with someone. I tried ignoring her, to no avail, and was finally saved by the band taking a break. I have never left a dance floor faster than I did that night. During the break, she left with her husband, but not before invading my personal space once again by kissing me on the cheek. A fun night out spoiled by an overzealous lady trying to make sure I didn’t feel bad for being alone because I am in a wheelchair. It’s every guy’s dream…not!
To look at this from a larger standpoint, the strongest relationships in my life are ones that don’t constantly focus on the disability. Even if I have discussions with my best friend, who also happens to be disabled, about our respective disabilities, we also have many more conversations about how good or terrible the latest music, TV or movies are and how we could fix them. We have real life conversations about things that affect the majority of the population, not just people who are disabled. Many people who have remained my friends throughout the years did not start our friendship by asking “what’s wrong with your legs?” The reason I don’t go out much isn’t because I’m ashamed of my disability or feel bad for myself. Ask any of my good friends or family members and they will confirm that I am one of the most confident, level-headed people with a disability they have ever met. I can’t change what happened, so there’s no point in dwelling on the negativity of it. The reason I don’t go out is because the level of stupid in the real world makes my head hurt sometimes. When I go out, I know I am going to have a very similar interaction to what transpired at this hotel, and it’s really unfortunate. I enjoy my life as much as possible, but I can’t if people keep telling me they feel bad for me or how brave I am. News flash, it’s not a compliment to me or the disabled community as a whole to be proud of me for doing something that so many people can do. I am not a caged animal or circus freak that can do tricks on command. I am a human being and I would like to be treated as such. I look forward to the day when having a disability is not a stigma and everyone can be respected as equal members of society.