“Self respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
One of the demons I have been battling of late is the issue of dignity versus pride. I have been told that sometimes I let my pride get in my way while others have accused me of having no pride. I answer that by saying without pride there is no respect and without respect there is no dignity. I have done many things in my life that I am very proud of but, I am no saint, and have also had my share of less than dignified moments.
I have been an activist for fifty years and I am very proud of that. I am proud that I was able to compete as a brash unruly teenager in the first Canadian Wheelchair Games (Montreal 1967), a time when accessibility was just a word. In 1967 airline regulations restricted the number of wheelchair dependent passengers allowing two per flight. I’m proud to have been part of that and the awareness it brought. This resulted in the review and revision of flight regulations which had an added benefit of broadening a dignified way to travel.
Fifty years later we have a proud Paralympian having their dignity denied because of some misunderstanding over the rights of the disabled? More incremental erosion. When you are ask to leave an establishment because your wheelchair poses a “fire threat” it is your dignity that is threatened. An apology the next day might make the establishment feel better but does little for the loss of dignity to the Paralympian. Without some dignity in your life it becomes easy to be bitter and a life full of bitterness is a life wasted.
I’ve had my own experience with the whole “fire threat” scenario and it didn’t feel good. The pride I felt for my son’s grade 12 graduation exercise was denied me for the very same reason. The school didn’t have a ticket for me and they were already over the number of attendees allowed under the fire code.
I had four years of involvement so for them to be unprepared for a wheelchair dependent parent posing “a potential barrier to a fire emergency” just didn’t sit well with me.
It would have been less dignified if I had pushed the issue and I didn’t want to embarrass my son in front of his peers. Almost fifteen years later and that still sits in the back of my mind. I had driven up from Victoria to Cobble Hill to attend that ceremony and had my dignity ripped away in front of other parents by being refused entrance. All that was going through my mind at the time was “don’t let your pride get in the way”, today is about Sean’s pride over graduating.
I did the half hour drive back to Victoria knowing I would never know the pride of watching my son graduate but when do you let pride trump your dignity?
Growing up in a hospital environment puts a different spin on dignity. By the time the cognitive nature of dignity begins to develop the bar is already low. You have generally been poked and prodded by so many medical professionals dignity is a different norm. Every August from the age of 6 I would be booked into what was referred to as “grand rounds” at the Children’s Hospital. Grand rounds was the indication you were going to be admitted for some type of surgery and schooling for the year.
I would be put on an examination table with a half dozen or so doctors, another half dozen interns and a handful of nurses. All I would be wearing was a loincloth that would have embarrassed Tarzan. However to me it was exciting because grand rounds meant admission and the hospital was my home. My doctor, Dr. Vince Murphy, would have me on the examination table and he would start explaining what surgical process he wanted to attempt while those in attendance asked various questions. There was no dignity to that but I was 7 or 8 years old and looking forward to “coming home”. The last thing on my mind was dignity or pride.
The closes I ever got to the concept of dignity was that it was a word you would hear the nurses use as they wrapped up the kid who had died in the bed next to me. So the foundations for dignity was more like putting turf over the ground rather than actually planting grass seeds. Back to pride.
I take great pride in the activism I have been involved with most of my life in the ongoing fight for access and civil rights. That’s pride and something I will never be ashamed of or feel a lack of dignity for. What impacts my dignity is when I go out with friends to a restaurant and wind up shitting my pants because the “accessible” bathroom (if there is one) is also the storage area for mops and cleaning materials which couldn’t be emptied in time. Nothing like an hour long drive home sitting on a pile of shit.
Loss of dignity happens when you have to eat your meal off the top of a stool because all of the tables in the restaurant are bar type tables. You know damn well the last thing to have touch your eating area was someone’s ass and the staff don’t have enough common sense to put a place mat on the stool top.
Loss of dignity is when you ask the server for a cloth napkin (so you can put it over the stool seat they haven’t bothered to put a place mat over) and they ask the people you’re with if I had forgotten my “bib” at home. These are all real and have all happened in the last six months so it isn’t ancient history to me. those attitudes are still there. So much for the pride of fighting for reasonable access while trying to increase positive attitudes regarding disabilities.
With Christmas quickly coming upon us this is even more of a problem. Now this is where dignity and pride clash. I use to host or attend “waif” Christmas meals. A waif meal is a gathering of like minded people but that have no family attachments in the area. We would get together just to enjoy Christmas with others around. I’ve now reach a physical state (and age) where that is really no longer an option. The waif’s of today are 45 years younger than me and doing their own thing.
This opens the door for well meaning people to feel the need to invite me to their family gathering with the understanding that no one should be alone at Christmas. I can appreciate that however there isn’t a lot of dignity being stuck in a corner of a room that was never designed for wheelchair maneuverability. I know they mean well however most people have no idea about the logistics of this type of event. How crowded will the room be? Is there a bathroom that is workable? Do they understand the configuration to get a wheelchair up to a table build for 8 but serving 12 (which is the types of family Christmas I remember)?
It’s not a matter of my pride being in the way but I hate to insult people. I have learnt over the years to just tell people “plans are made but thanks for the thought”. It’s easier, it may be prideful but it does protect my dignity. Social isolation is a choice to me not a condition of survival…