Columns 2003

“Handicapped” aunt sure didn’t act that way

When my aunt contracted polio as a child in the early years of the last century, the idea of any special accommodations for people with handicaps was still over 50 years away. So she grew up learning how to make do in a world that didn’t quite know what to do with her, the braces on her legs, or the limits they imposed.

We now live in a country where every new public building automatically accommodates handicap needs thanks to federal law mandating that it must.  If there are stairs in the building, you’ll find a ramp or an elevator nearby.  Public restrooms have stalls that allow wheelchair access and bars that allow the people to transfer themselves to the toilet seat without risking injury. Newer restrooms even have a sink set at a lower level so the wheelchair bound person can wash their hands in comfort and a towel dispenser that they can reach from their seat.

These things have become so much a part of our lives that we can quickly forger that it was not all that long ago that none of these amenities existed for the handicapped.  In fact, times have so changed that using the word “handicapped” is now politically incorrect. 

While I’m all for people being called what they want to be called, I’m not sure my aunt would have scored many points with her favorite term for herself.  She used the word “gimp”.  As I grew older and realized that this word could have a negative connotation, I often wondered if she didn’t use it as a form of self-protection.  Call yourself a name before anyone else does. 

When you are raised with someone like my aunt in your life, you grow up thinking that the things they do are normal.  Nothing stands out as odd because for as long as you can remember, that’s the way it was. I knew to automatically go ahead of my aunt when we were going up stairs because she needed to swing her braced leg out behind her to get to the next step. If I was behind her, I’d get beaned and I’d get no sympathy from anyone because I was in the wrong place and should have known it.  I knew that coming down those stairs, I also had to be in front because she had to sit and haul herself down on her butt.

With the passing of the years, I look back now and wonder just how much pain she was hiding under her sense of humor.  I know she was self-conscious about the brace.  When my mother was still alive and we were looking at pictures of her and her sisters on the beach, I commented that Aunt Adeline didn’t have any braces on her legs. My mother told me that before she would let anyone take a picture of her, she made sure the brace was hidden. If she was wearing a dress, she stood behind someone so only her head and shoulders showed. If she was in a bathing suit, she took the brace off, propped herself up carefully next to her sisters, had the picture taken and then put the brace back on.

When she was young, her parents would not give her permission to marry because they thought that she would pass her crippled legs on to any children she might have.  When, in later life, she did marry, she directed everyone to the wedding by telling them to look for a storefront with a lot of wheelchairs and gimps heading inside.  Her reception was in a storefront because it had no stairs and both doors opened wide so the wheelchairs could get in.

It’s like I said, when you grow up with someone like my aunt, you take the way they are for granted. As kids, all we needed to know about her was that she loved us and she had a magic ring that could make candy appear in her bureau drawer whenever we went for a visit.

I’m glad that there are laws now that require us all to make accommodations for people with different types of ability. I’m glad those laws allow everyone their right to see a movie, use a public restroom or go to a restaurant with their dignity intact. I just wish it had happened sooner so that my aunt could have enjoyed those benefits.  Not that she would have ever complained. She was too ornery, independent and downright feisty to want anyone to think she couldn’t do anything she wanted. 

But the truth is, she couldn’t.  Because there were just too many barriers.