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James Ferragut, Published April 13 2013

Ferragut: View from electric cart can be bright or bleak

I tore my Achilles tendon in last year’s Fargo Marathon. I couldn’t have the corrective surgery until February. I’ve been hobbling around on crutches for seven weeks and got free of my brace/cast days ago. A life lesson has come from my navigating as someone with a physical handicap.

When it was time to return to the world after recovery, I had to face the unexpected. By week two, I had mastered basic maneuvers on crutches, so I started running errands, going to stores and restaurants. The novelty of being “handicapped” got old quickly. People responded in unpredictable ways, not all positive.

At a big-box store, I was trying to push a cart while on crutches, and failing. An overweight, self-important 30-year-old floor manager was busy talking on his walkie-talkie, acting like the big shot he thought he was. I was 5 feet in front of him, trying to push the cart, hopping on one leg. I dropped a crutch for the fifth time. I leaned over on my good leg to pick it up, expecting his help (this store is known for being customer friendly). But he didn’t help. He walkie-talkied right by me without a glance. I asked a teenage associate an aisle away for help, who found an electric cart for me.

People look at you differently when you shop in an electric cart. If on crutches, the assumption is the poor soul has a temporary affliction, and is greeted with polite stares and knowing nods of “hang in there.” When you ride in an electric cart, the perception is that the condition is serious and permanent. Eye contact isn’t allowed, nor is sympathy or empathy. If you don’t see the “untouchable,” then they don’t exist, so nothing is expected of you.

From the cart I reached for an item on the top shelf. Two teenage girls saw me miss my target. They started texting (probably to each other) so they didn’t have to look at or deal with that poor, struggling invalid. I got out of the cart and one-legged it over to grab my product and hopped back in one effortless move. I did that for me, not for them.

As I tried to master the cart’s turning radius and test its speed, I was astounded at the number of people who pretended not to see me and wouldn’t get out of the way, as if I were intentionally trying to complicate their day. People would bump into me and not apologize, or they’d sigh while walking impatiently behind me until I pulled over so they could pass. More than once I had the urge to knock down a body or two just for spite.

Shopping from that cart recalibrated my view of the invisible prejudice and intolerance many people have toward people with physical handicaps.

Navigating the world on crutches resulted in mixed experiences. A mathematician couldn’t extrapolate data to prove that kindness or inconsideration can be typed by age, gender, ethnicity, social status or intelligence. I’ve seen both sides by all of the above.

A guy in his 60s almost knocked me over at a grocery store and barked, “You should put a flag on those things.” Great. Thanks a lot, Buster. A teenage Hispanic male insisted that he help me carry my milk and bag from a convenience store to my car.

Doors have been held open, doors have been slammed.

One sweet teenage girl stood outside my car door and waited while I gathered my business bag and crutches and hopped out. “Can I help you carry anything inside?” I politely declined. I was moved by her kind offer and the thought her parents must be proud.

What’s the lesson? People are people whether they’re tall and strong as a tent pole or scooting along, self-conscious and bitter, in slow motion on an electric cart.

Everyone deserves to be looked in the eye. Everyone can use a little help. Everyone deserves to have the door held open for them. And that includes you, Buster.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.