A few days before I was due to leave, I was hiking with friends in the hills where I live. I slipped on some gravel and broke my ankle. A week later, I flew to France with a bit more baggage--my wheelchair, crutches, and purple cast on my foot.
Most of us think of the Land of the Disabled as a place where other, unfortunate people live. We may sympathize with their problems and support their rights, but until we've been there, we don't understand in a visceral way what it means to move through a world that is not set up for our physical needs. And yet, judging from the number of stories I've heard, it's highly likely that most of us will, at some point, make at least a temporary stay in this realm.
|The Land of the Disabled can be a deeply isolating place.|
My friend, ecofeminist author Ynestre King, who has struggled with a lifelong disability, refers to most of the world as the "temporarily abled." One misstep, one driver who runs a red light, or one fall, and we can lose that fortunate status.
One moment I was strolling happily and slowly, talking to my friend Dave. The next instant, one leg was flying out from under me. I landed on the other leg, felt something snap; a hot electric band encircled my foot. In that instant, I was transformed from a person who normally walked miles every day as a meditation to someone for whom the rooms downstairs were as distant as another country. I was still quite capable of creating rituals, leading trances, writing essays, doing all the things that make up my work in the world. But the little daily things, like taking a bath or making a cup of tea, became extraordinarily challenging and problematic.
In this realm, independence becomes a rare and precious commodity, and the direct result of the design of the physical environment around you, which itself is an expression of our collective awareness of the difference that disability represents and our collective will to do something about it. To illustrate, let me describe two stops on my journey.
The first is the cave of Rouffignac, the only cave in the Dordogne that makes a pretence of accessibility. As we approached with our group of women, suddenly the French guide grabbed my wheelchair from behind and tipped it up in the air. He ran me down to the lower cavern where a small train waited. Getting on the train, which had a very high step, required some complex maneuvers between me, the crutches, and the guide, who eventually wrapped his arms around me and hoisted me up--a level of intimacy I wouldn't have chosen given any other option. I don't know how someone who was truly wheelchair bound could have gotten onto the train at all--and yet a little thought and money could have provided a simple hydraulic lift for a wheelchair.
The cave itself was wonderful. Descending on the train was like being carried deep into a living body. We passed the fossilized beds of cave bears and finally reached the galleries where ancient people had drawn convocations of mammoths. The simplicity and beauty of the lines, the power of the shapes to convey these ancient and vanished beasts, was deeply moving. I could feel how intimately they must have known these animals, how many long hours must have been spent observing them, watching them feed and move and mate. I felt deeply grateful to those ancient artists and privileged to enter this magical and powerful space.
Nevertheless, throughout the hour in the cave I was very conscious of being an anomaly. As I was hoisted awkwardly on and off the train, as I balanced on crutches to look up at the drawings and leaned against the sacrosanct cave walls to give my one good leg some relief, I felt I was there on sufferance, not by right. And someone who lacked even my minimal abilities could not have taken that journey at all--as I was excluded from most of the other sites our group visited. Permanently disabled French people will never be able to experience that part of their heritage.