Dear Harried Harriet,
I see you avoid my glance & pull your children in closer as I walk by. I see a look as our eyes meet that there’s an assumption that I smoked or was somehow self-destructive because I carry around an oxygen machine. I see you bend over to tell your children that “It isn’t polite to stare” & “Don’t be scared” as you hurry past me to be sure you can get a cart & be away from me as soon as possible.
Let me tell you that I understand these fears & their origins.
They come from smoker shaming commercials by the Ad Council, “Truth”, & other public service agencies. They often equate oxygen use as direct result of bad behaviors or habits. Such “public service announcements” use disability & the need for oxygen as a scare tactic to shame people into quitting a vice (like smoking).
What I wish you understood is that there are several different rare diseases as well as more common lung problems that affect all ages, ethnicities, sexes, & incomes. Such diseases do not discriminate who they affect.
Furthermore, smoking is not at the root of all lung problems or issues. People can take excellent care of themselves & still be affected by lung disease. Genetics also plays a role. Other factors do. Sometimes people’s lungs fail from unknown & rare medical causes.
It should not automatically be assumed that we did something terrible to ourselves to have to use oxygen.
Some of us need oxygen to take better care of ourselves, because it makes it easier for us to do exactly that. An oxygen tank is not an example of shame or guilt or to be used as a foil to “teach a lesson” we feel people need to learn. It’s not a symbol of pity.
I look as my oxygen machine the same as someone uses crutches for a broken ankle or someone else sees their wheelchair. It is a device of freedom that helps keep me mobile & active.
It helps me go about living my life. It allows me to spend time with friends & family, go to the store to pick up a few items for the house, go out at night to eat, or to a movie. It helps me exercise.
I am not a hero or an inspiration for doing these things. For partaking in every day life.
I may move a bit more slowly which I understand is frustrating to you since you are in a hurry. I can tell you are also at a loss on what to say to your children.
They are curious minds & don’t mean to be rude. They are just direct when they ask you “Why is that lady wearing that thing in her nose?”
Perhaps you have a fear of disability yourself. Perhaps you have disgust for me. Perhaps you are just uncomfortable & that’s why you snap at them for asking.
I am not the enemy. I’m not out to inconvenience you. I am simply going about my business & day like you.
Instead of an uncomfortable glare back at me & your children would it kill you to politely say “Excuse me, may I pass?” Versus looking at me like I did something awful & that I’m someone to be feared.
I know inside you’re asking similar questions. I get it. I can shake that off. Part of us always remains a questioning child.
What I don’t understand is rudely glaring at me & obviously shooing away your children as if they’ve done something wrong or I have. In doing so, you’re teaching them that difference is not OK. That I don’t deserve the same respect as someone else just because I look different.
I know you wouldn’t do that if your child slipped on the ice & hurt their foot or broke an arm falling down a slide. You certainly wouldn’t want them to be made uncomfortable in public with their cast, splint, or crutches.
I also know you wouldn’t allow your children to be bullied, glared at, or teased by others.
I certainly know you wouldn’t allow strangers to push past them or complain about how slow they are on their crutches. This is no different.
The next time we are sharing space, take a minute to stop & think about the example you’re setting.
I’m not a “bad” public service announcement. I am a human being. Please respect my space & right to exist & go about my business as I respect you to go about yours when I politely smile & step aside for you to rush past me.