Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image


Cheney’s Villainy — Nothing to Do with His Wheelchair

I never thought I’d be sticking up for Dick Cheney. But his appearance at the Inauguration today, riding in a wheelchair pushed by several Marines, has elicited so many nasty, disabiliphobic comments, that I find myself… well, not exactly defending Cheney, but at least defending the dignity of wheelchair use.

Cheney apparently pulled a back muscle, and has to stay off his feet for a few days. Granted, with his clunky chair and his scowling countenance, he’s not exactly the model of the hip, sexy crip. Too many commentators, however, have turned the wheelchair into a mark of shame. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “The Vice President in that wheelchair… is a metaphor for the low esteem with which he’s held in this country. His numbers are pathetically low.” (Is Matthews aware of the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most effective and most popular presidents, governed from a wheelchair?)

Around the Internet, I’ve seen numerous gleeful references to the image of Cheney in a wheelchair. Several compared him to Dr. Strangelove, the maniacal nuclear scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s film. Others invoke Mr. Potter, that mean old banker in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

We don’t need another villain in a wheelchair. A villain he may be, with shared responsibility for torture, repression, and all kinds of other crimes against humanity. But the wheelchair has nothing to do with it.

The Halloween Costume Dilemma

When I was a kid, I coveted the presents that came on Christmas and birthdays, and I stuffed myself on Thanksgiving. I felt like a real sleuth searching for Easter eggs. I took a pyromaniac joy in the Fourth of July festivities.

But of all the holidays traditionally celebrated by American Protestants, my favorite was Halloween.

That’s a little surprising to me now, because when I try to come up with costumes to wear to Halloween parties, or just to answer the door to trick-or-treaters, I usually come up empty. I don’t have a lot of self-adornment skills or creativity. I also puzzle over how any given costume idea might interact with my various highly visible disability accouterments. During this campaign season, I have thought of trying to be a scary Sarah Palin, or a Democratic donkey, or a persistent pollster. But any such persona/anima would, I fear, clash with my wheelchair, ventilator, and other devices.

Of course, I could try to blend my equipment into a more technologically-themed costume. I could be Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine (minus the spectacular physique), or Darth Vader (without the light saber — but my nephews would never let me get away with that).

I could emulate the appearance of a famous disabled person; I’m just not sure I have the panache to pull off Franklin D. Roosevelt. I know I don’t have the dashing masculine charm of Christopher Reeve. (Celebrity women in wheelchairs seem to be few and far between. Annette Funicello, Barbara Jordan, and most others departed the public eye after becoming disabled, so they lack the easy recognizability of a good costume.)

Things were much simpler when I was young. As a child, I never (that I can remember) worried about my disability’s effect on my costume. That’s probably because my Mom didn’t worry about it. She had a creative imagination, and the craft and sewing skills to carry out her ideas.

One Halloween I was Snoopy, with beagle ears and a black button nose. With a few pieces of painted cardboard, my wheelchair became a rough approximation of a dog house.

Another year I was a football player, with big shoulder pads, and a Denver Broncos helmet and jersey. I guess people just drew their own conclusions about how the wheelchair fit in with that.

My favorite, most memorable costume was part of a family ensemble: Playing on our last name, my mother used brown and white felt to transform my brother into a walking Hershey chocolate bar. And around my wheelchair, she sculpted chickenwire and a large quantity of tinfoil into a Hershey kiss costume.

Parents convey their attitudes toward their children through simple acts like these. (Okay, my mother would probably take issue with the term “simple” here. Some of those costumes probably took hours, and several false starts, to achieve the desired effect.) The point is, I had the same Halloween expectations as every other kid in my neighborhood: to dress up, to take on a new identity, and to present myself at each door demanding candy.

Now I’m on the other side of that transaction, getting ready to answer my own door to trick-or-treaters. I’m still not sure what I’ll be wearing when I do that.

I wonder if we have any foil around here?

Roxborough Park Hike, October 8, 2008

One footstep at a time I trudge the trail, only my steps are not footsteps but just as frequent decisions about where to place a wheel, at what angle; small changes of direction, planning ahead how best to keep moving, keep from going wrong. I think, Is this how other hikers hike? Maybe not regular walkers; their accustomed movements, one in front of another, come so naturally that they become unconscious. But when they take on tougher trails, trails involving variable terrain, or climbing, or winding, then they have to think about it. They examine the earth in front of them, assess its angles, guess at its texture — solid, ready to take weight, or sandy and prone to give way; slick, or rough enough to welcome foothold.

My own scrutiny of the trail involves different factors. I strategize how I might maximize the power reeling from my rear wheels, while keeping my front wheels from catching a rut or a rock that may jerk me off course. I compare the approaching waves, dips, slopes, and ridges with the shape of my wheelchair, plan how to steer around or over the hazards. My tactical considerations may be different from a nondisabled hiker’s, but I think we are both looking for the same kinds of challenges, the same pleasures.

The pleasures abound. All around me on this land that is part high desert, part lush creekbed, the miracles of autumn blaze like a newly-opened vein of gold. Walls of scrub oak, transitioning from green, through yellow, to brown, border my hike for a while. Then a view suddenly opens: broad weedy meadow, rust-red rock formations jutting skyward in parallel angles. Beyond that, mountains of granite and pine catch the bending sun.

And around one corner, an unexpected treasure: A clump of rabbit brush, heavy with yellow blossoms, each flower hosting butterflies who land, suck, clench and then spread their lovely black and orange wings. At least a dozen butterflies have chosen this bush for their banquet. Bees share the feast, tumbling and climbing over the blooms. It’s like a living, breathing crown of jewels.

I start moving forward again, after stopping to revel for a while in front of that burst of color and movement. I take in all the rich scenery, near and far, from the tiniest purple wildflower to the Rocky Mountain range miles away. The pleasures of this lake are not simply visual, however. I’m enjoying a physical rush which, again, I wonder if able-bodied hikers also experience. On this unpaved, bumpy dirt trail, my wheelchair and my body both navigate and absorb the earth’s curves. Even as I plan the best approach to an upcoming swale, the right speed and angle, when it arrives I must give myself over to it, feel it rise and fall me. Every pebble, every patch of gravel, every ridged and slanting stretch of trail brings its own vibrational tune, and these I take into my body as if learning a sacred song by heart.