I am a house of cards. I may look steady and sturdy and ready for business. But I am a delicately balanced, perilously perched creature. It’s easy to upset my fragile equilibrium. Approach me the wrong way and somebody might get hurt.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) almost found this out the hard way. He has no idea how close he came. He approached me wrong and disturbed my equilibrium and he nearly paid the price. He was working the crowd at a political rally. He grabbed my right hand in his hefty paws and shook it. Now normally when someone reaches to shake my hand alarm bells blare in my head because I drive my motorized wheelchair with my right hand and the joystick that moves my chair is right there. Two scenarios are likely: 1) The shaker puts their hand on my joystick and my chair goes flying 2) The shaker releases my hand and my hand drops like a dead bird onto my joystick and my chair goes flying. (As part of my morning routine, the person assisting me positions my wrist on the precise spot on my wheelchair armrest from which I can operate my joystick. If something dislodges my hand from that exact spot—a sharp bump or dip in the pavement, a strong gust of wind, a surprise handshake—I may not have the wrist strength to move my hand back. So wherever my hand lands it lies.)
When I see a handshake coming, I quickly push the button behind the joy stick that shuts off the wheelchair power. But if it’s a hit and run handshake like Harkin’s was, I don’t always get to the button in time.
Harkin dropped my hand on my joystick. A joystick does not think for itself. It does what it’s told to do without regard for ridiculousness or danger. It’s like a sycophant, a codependent, a blue-collar republican or a computer. A joystick sends the chair in whatever direction the hand pushes the joystick, even if it’s off a cliff. (Case in point: My quad friend Susan was acting in a play. Every performance, she and another character danced. One night the other character leapt onto her lap. His leg landed on her joystick. They both drove off the edge of the stage. The show stopped. The paramedics came. Susan broke her leg.)
Harkin dropped my hand on my joystick and my chair shot off to the left, away from him. But had I shot to the right I would have rammed his shin and taken his legs out from under him. And he may well have landed on my lap and the two of us may have barreled through the streets of D.C. for miles on a runaway wheelchair, upending fruit carts and scattering flocks of tourists. And I would be writing this from Guantanamo.
And then there’s those grabby little kids. Someday I’m going to flatten one of them too. I can see those kids coming. They’re almost always boys and about age two or three, just old enough to run around like maniacs, grabbing everything in sight. They’ve got that fiendish little grabby-ass look in their eyes. They love to grab joy sticks. Someday I won’t get to the power button in time and one of those kids will become a statistic.
Someday someone will hug me and it will end in tragedy too. The alarms also blare when I see a hug coming at me because the hugger will inevitably lean against the joystick and send us both careening on a demolition derby ride. If you must hug me, approach me from the left. There’s no joystick there.
The woman who knows best how terrifying it is to approach me wrong is the nurse who took my blood pressure once. I thought the wheelchair power was off but it wasn’t and she snagged my joystick with the stethoscope. And when my wheelchair lurched forward she bolted from her chair and backed away. But she had my joystick snagged good so wherever she ran in a frantic attempt to escape, I involuntarily followed. She screamed because suddenly this crazed cripple was chasing her around the tiny exam room at full speed, ricocheting like a pinball. The wild chase ended abruptly when I slammed into an exam table. When she took my blood pressure it was something like 300 over 200.
I’m a dangerous, volatile man. Congress should require that I be stamped with a surgeon general’s warning: Warning. This man is a cripple. Approach with caution. Hugging him or shaking his hand can be hazardous to your health.