You shouldn’t be surprised. Putting it simply (because I’m an English major and don’t have the scientific knowledge to put it any other way), the human body is held together by a framework of muscles and bones. SMA is a muscle wasting disease, which you should know by now basically just means my muscles are shitty at doing anything that muscles are supposed to do, and they’re constantly getting shittier. Don’t believe me? Since I started this blog 16 months ago, I’ve lost the ability to lift my hands any higher than mouth. When my nose or eyes or forehead itches, which seems to be all the fucking time now that I can’t reach those spots, I have to ask someone for a fork or a straw which I use to relieve the itch. Yes, it looks weird, but it’s better than constantly asking other people to itch my face for me. Anyway, my muscles, a large part of my framework, suck.
Another side effect of having shitty muscles is having shitty bones. If you’re not aware, bones that don’t bear weight for long periods of time become extremely weak and easy to break. My doctors tried to delay this process as much as possible when I was a little kid by making me use a “stander.” The stander was a torture device that held my body in a faux-standing position (like a fauxhawk, but different). My legs could never support the entire weight of my body, but the idea was that if I used the stander every day, forcing my legs to bear at least some weight, my bones would strengthen and not become as weak later on in life. However, 5-year-old Shane did not appreciate this logic and thought of the stander only as another way for his therapists to hurt him. I avoided the stander as much as possible and eventually my muscles and bones became so weak that standing in the stander became too painful to bear. I’ve been either sitting or lying down ever since, bearing almost no weight, and this has caused my bones to become pretty weak over the last 20 years.
We now understand why I’m fragile. However, I’m guessing it’s difficult to conceptualize how fragile (or how not fragile) I actually am. I don’t want you to think that flicking my arm will cause a compound fracture, but punching it with any amount of force might. If we ever meet in person, please don’t punch me.
To give you a better idea of my fragility, here are some things that would probably break me:
I suppose you can think of me as a toddler, in terms of how easily broken I am. (Are toddlers easily broken?)
My fragility is not, however, the only point of this post. Instead, I’d like to tell you about a recent event in my life when I legitimately feared for my safety because of my fragility. Let’s begin.
Several weeks ago my good friend Lily surprised me with an awesome phone call: “Shane, Michelle Obama is speaking at Moravian! I got you a ticket. You’re coming with me.”
I’m usually pretty hesitant to commit to going to events before doing my own research. (Is the venue accessible? Will there be a handicap seating area? Will I be able to see from that area? Will my non-disabled friends be able to sit with me in the handicap section?) However, Lily quickly convinced me that an event of such prominence would obviously be accessible, and that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that we wouldn’t be friends anymore if I didn’t attend. Needless to say, I attended.
In the van on the way to the speech, Lily and I speculated about what the seating arrangements would be like. I’ve been to plenty of sporting events, concerts, speeches and shows in my life to know that the handicap seating area is an often-overlooked section of many venues. Michelle was speaking in the basketball gym at Moravian, a smaller-ish building that does not have a built in handicap area. I would be sitting somewhere on the floor, probably near the front, I hoped, so I could see the stage. My biggest concern any time I go to a public event is that the handicap section will allow me to sit with at least one of my able-bodied friends. Let’s be honest, if you went to a football game with a bunch of friends, and found out upon arrival that you had to sit in a secluded area with a bunch of strangers while the rest of your friends sat together somewhere else, you would be at least slightly pissed. This has happened to me more than once, and it is indeed a pile of horseshit.
I must have expressed this mentality, because Lily asked, “So what do we do if we get inside and they try to split us up?”
“Tell them that you have to sit next to me in case I need my seizure medication,” I replied matter of factly.
SMA does not cause seizures; I’ve never had one in my life, but toss out the word seizure next time you’re trying to get something from a person of authority and you’ll be amazed at how understanding they become. To hammer the point home, I promised Lily that if she didn’t do everything in her power to sit with me, I would tell the secret service that she was planning an assassination and have her removed from the venue. That’s what friends are for.
While waiting in line to get in to Johnston Hall, secret service agents approached us and instructed “my companion” and I to follow them. We were with several friends, but we assumed this would eventually happen, so we didn’t argue. Lily and I followed the badass dudes in suits around the side of the building and into the accessible entrance. Upon entering, we were greeted by an older man with a metal detection wand. At least I’m assuming that’s what it was; maybe it was a republican mentality detector, so that they could keep all opposition out of the rally. He scanned Lily and let her through, then surprisingly just waved me through the security checkpoint without checking me at all. I have a bag on the side of my chair that, for all he knew, could’ve been filled with bombs and knives and rocket launchers, but I’m a cute little wheelchair kid so obviously I can’t be evil. I smiled and did my best to not look like a terrorist as I drove past him. Spoiler alert: I’m not a terrorist; that’s not where I’m going with this story.
The gym was packed to capacity. A stage had been constructed on one end of the basketball court, and the rest of the floor was covered by thousands of human beings jamming themselves as close to the stage as possible. My initial thoughts were, “Holy shit it’s 1000 degrees in here,” and “Where the hell am I supposed to sit?”
Off to the right I spotted a big blue handicap sign and some secret service agents standing around it. I moved towards the sign like a moth instinctively moves towards bright light.
(In noisy places, surrounded by people who’s heads are generally 2-3 feet above mine, it’s easy to feel small and insignificant. Even when screaming at the top of my lungs, I don’t have the lung capacity to be very loud. I’ve grown accustomed to not having much of a voice at loud, public events. I rely on facial expressions and the voices of my companions to communicate with other people.)
A young woman with a volunteer sticker on her suit jacket stood next to the handicap sign and explained to us that the disabled seating section was located in the front, near the stage. She motioned to follow her and led us down a narrow path created by a rope barrier along the edge of the gym.
When the handicap section came into view, my heart sank a little. It was a small area near the stage that was blocked off with rope and very noticeably overflowing with old people in wheelchairs. The volunteer lifted the rope for me and promptly closed it in front of Lily. Before I could maneuver my chair around to argue, another secret service agent was directing me into a spot to park my chair. I parked and waited. I can’t turn my head or body very far in either direction, so when another wheelchair pulled up next to me, I was basically stuck staring straight ahead.
Someone off the my left, not in the handicap section, called my name multiple times, failing to understand that I physically couldn’t turn my body to look at them. I felt bad, but this isn’t the first time this awkward situation has arisen so I didn’t let it get to me.
A text from Lily informed me that she was in the regular, standing room only section. The secret service would later let her into the handicap section, but she had to sit behind me, making communication impossible by any means other than text message.
I was pissed. But my annoyance only lasted for several minutes before I had the epiphany that I was really lucky to be seeing this speech at all. I had a great view of the stage and it ultimately was not important if Lily was sitting next to me or behind me. We weren’t at the speech to talk.
Shane, not to be rude, but why the fuck did you start this story by telling us how fragile you are?
Calm down, agitated reader, I’m getting there.
Fast forward a few hours, the speech was pretty good. Lots of “FOUR MORE YEARS!” chants, which were interesting. It was my first political rally, so I have nothing to compare it too. My mind was most captivated, however, by the people sitting around me in the handicap section. To my immediate left was a middle aged woman in a manual wheelchair who spent a majority of the speech yelling “DOWN IN FRONT,” attempting to make some people a few rows in front of us sit down. Assessing the position of her head, in relation to the position of Michelle on the stage, I decided she could see perfectly fine and was most likely just a curmudgeon in the making. In front of me sat a very old man who read a very graphic war novel and kept adjusting his wheelchair to be further to the left for no apparent reason. On my right sat two elderly war veterans. One of them was black, and I listened to them intently as they exchanged grim stories of racism back in the day. It was probably the most impactful moment of my night, hearing these two men discuss what it truly meant to have rights in America.
Then the speech ended. Raucous applause accompanied Michelle Obama as she walked off the stage and approached the handicap section. That’s when things got nuts.
When the crowd realized that she was going to shake hands with the front row, everyone went completely ape shit. The flimsy rope that blocked off the handicap section gave way as a flood of able-bodied people crashed into our area, pushing themselves between the wheelchairs to get to the front. The angry wheelchair woman to my left lost her mind and JUMPED out of her chair. I kid you not, she literally leapt out of that fucking wheelchair, screamed Michelle’s name repeatedly, climbed over an empty chair in front of her, and disappeared into the crowd that was surging towards Michelle.
This is when my fragility became a problem. Sitting in the middle of the handicap section, surrounded by wheelchairs, folding chairs, and crazed Obama supporters, I was suddenly very unsafe and very trapped. Large, heavy, adult bodies tripped over me and stumbled into me. I was merely an object for the fans to maneuver around. Generally people are abnormally careful around me, but on this night, if meeting Michelle meant smashing my body, I was getting smashed. All it would’ve taken is one stumbling person to connect with my head and my neck would’ve snapped like a twig.
To make matters worse, trying to forcibly drive my chair in any direction only caused more people to fall over me. All I could do was sit and hope that the craziness would subside and I would live to laugh about it later.
Clearly I did. Eventually, Lily used her hulk strength to throw a few wheelchairs out of the way. She then lowered her shoulder and became my lead blocker as we barreled through the crowd on our way to the back door.
Overall, it was a very worthwhile experience. I didn’t die, which is a plus! And let’s be honest, if I had died in the chaos, it would’ve made an awesome story and the Obama’s probably would’ve called my family to offer condolences, which is something not many people can say has happened to them.