I was 19, a student at Drake University. I wrote a column for the features page.
I always fancied myself a columnist.
The features editor challenged me to spend a day on campus in a wheelchair. The rule was I wasn’t to get up from the chair unless
I was blocking someone who needed special access.
We borrowed a wheelchair from a medical supply company in town. I spent a full day on the chair.
The first time we tried to use the wheelchair in my dorm — I lived in the basement — the lift upstairs blew up. They had to hand-crank me up the stairs.
I spent the day on uneven pavements with cracks big enough to swallow a wheelchair tire, opening doors to rooms that almost hid the elevators, and a stream of hassles.
To be fair, Drake’s campus is much friendlier to the people with different access needs than it was in the middle 1990s when I wrote my column about it. I learned that firsthand as a grad student using a wheelchair. They were first-class in helping me with accessibility.
But back in the mid-1990s, I wrote a critical column about my university, probably meaner and more conspiratorial than it needed to be.
Young journalists often bark loudly to cover up for the thinness of their reporting.
I’m not proud of that story and save for a few times when I was ordered to do it, I avoided the “pretend to be somebody else for a day and then write about how much you understand their life” kind of story for the rest of my career.
The worst example of that I can ever think of was a local TV reporter who did a stunt for rating week in the early 1990s.
A petite woman, she put on a “fat suit” and paraded around town for a day. People treated her cruelly just because of her fake weight and suddenly her heart was full of empathy for overweight people.
I was, and am, a fat person. You don’t learn much about being a fat person from spending time in a fat suit because, at the end of the day, you know you can take that fat suit off and return to being a small person.
Fat people know this is who they are and the reality of their lives.
This lesson took a long time to sink in for me. The worst part of my story 27 years ago is that I failed to do the one thing that should be obvious: I never imagined myself as being the person who needed help.
And now I am.
I am both a fat person and a person with different movement needs.
And I find it hard to ask for help. I feel like a failure, a loser. I feel ugly inside and out.
These things aren’t true in their entirety, but I can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do. I feel the need to beat myself up rather than ask for an accommodation — stuff that employers are legally required to provide.
I hurt, and I’m ashamed of that pain.
My obesity got worse during my jobless stretch during the pandemic quarantine.
Then I twisted my left knee wrong one day and tore cartilage that could not be repaired.
A surgeon cut it out, which took away one kind of pain but brought another to the forefront.
Long-time arthritis problems went from chronic to acute. I can barely walk without a walker and sometimes the pain spreads to my lower back.
I spend most of my days trying to figure out the shortest way from one point to another, where the closest Americans with Disabilities Act restroom is to me and trying to time how long it will take me to traverse a distance that two modestly fit legs could cover in a couple minutes.
Generally, people are courteous and helpful when they see me trundling along with my walker.
Uncounted doors have been held open for me in the year since I accepted the walker as a tool for getting around.
Other things don’t always occur to people.
Sometimes I have meetings where I’m required to stand.
They’re only 10 minutes or so, but the longer I stand the more my legs weaken.
I am still foolishly prideful and refuse to ask for something as basic as a chair to sit on during such meetings.
Similarly, my school has been trying to find a chair to accommodate my girth and arthritis.
We had one, but it broke. We tried another solution, but it didn’t fit correctly.
The search goes on. We’ll figure it out eventually. I work for good people. They’re doing their best. I’m doing my best.
The short term is a problem. I end the week barely about to get out to my car and get home.
Saturday, I have so dehydrated a worried friend came over and brought food and a special kind of sports drink that’s supposed to pep you up. It took about a half day for me to feel human.
By Sunday, I was doing OK, tired, but weak.
Monday beckons again.
The pain never stops. It just gets blunted by rest and over-the-counter medication.
Obesity isn’t just a disease of good hand-to-mouth coordination or lack of self-control. It’s genetics. It’s the food we eat. It’s our psychological profile.
Arthritis is one of the most common medical conditions in the world.
The two work well together on the misery meter.
People often advise me to have gastric surgery, go on an extreme diet or exercise.
They mean well, but I shrug them off.
They don’t know how much it hurts, how hard those steps are. People are always ambitious with other people’s lives.
If you’re looking for a moral to this story, I can’t help you.
Maybe it’s this: Take care of your health before it becomes a life-threatening issue.
And be empathetic to those whose daily journey through life is tougher than yours.
Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney writes a column for the Marion County Gazette.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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