Less than two weeks ago, on the night of January 5th, I was hanging out with some friends at the Blue Nile on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. For many reasons, it’s become one of my favorite places in New Orleans, though, admittedly it’s primarily because I’m good friends with a handful of its employees, and whenever I am there, they treat me like family.

I’m also an unabashed fan of Frenchman Street. For someone like me, someone who can only visit New Orleans sporadically and who can’t stand the stench, the obnoxious public drunkenness, and the claustrophobia of Bourbon Street, for example, Frenchman is vastly superior, at least in my opinion. There’s a reason Austin needs to remind people to “Keep Austin Weird,” an underlying fear that the unique, cultured, and urbane enclave it has become could easily be eroded and destroyed and, with that, a tacit acknowledgment that its “weirdness” is relatively new and fragile. New Orleans may have its fair share of gimmicky slogans, but if the storm and the recovery have proven anything, it’s that the city’s culture is deeply engrained in its DNA. There are, of course, hugely important discussions about the nature and the direction of the city’s ongoing recovery and the need for historic preservation, yet New Orleans proves, at least to me, that culture is more resilient than buildings; real culture is weatherproof, and as threatened and as fearful as some of New Orleans’s biggest champions may have been about the potential of losing that culture– of Disneyfication or corporatization (some of which, no doubt, has occurred), New Orleanians don’t have to remind themselves of the fierce urgency of maintaining their own “weirdness.” Baby, they were born that way.

But I digress.

It was the night of January 5th, and I was upstairs at the Blue Nile, sitting on the balcony outside and catching up with my friend Daniel. At some point, we moved back inside to visit with our friend, who was tending the bar. And I was happy, ebullient even, thankful to be reunited with so many of my friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in seven or eight months, and I was marveling at New Orleans.

I can pinpoint the exact moment this occurred, because immediately beforehand, I sent out the following sentimentally ridiculous tweet:

I pressed send, I walked to the bathroom, and then, while making my way back to my seat, I accidentally bumped into a girl. I’ve never been particularly skilled at walking through crowds; every stranger seems like a potential landmine, and when your balance is as bad as mine is, there is a real fear that you could miss a step or drag a foot and end up causing yourself and others to fall like a chain of dominos. But thankfully, I didn’t hurt the girl. She was just nudged, and I could tell, immediately, that she thought I had intentionally tried to bump into her.

And obviously, I was in a particularly great mood, and in no way did I want to cause any trouble. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

She was a petite, blonde-haired white girl, around twenty-two or twenty-three years old, and she’d obviously had a little too much to drink. “No, you’re not.” She was standing next to a young white guy wearing a polo with an upturned collar. “He bumped me,” she told him.

“No, look, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m clumsy. I’m disabled, and I’m not really great at walking around crowds.”

She rolled her eyes and laughed. “No, you’re a liar.”

“No, no, I have cerebral palsy. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you,” I said.

We were standing only two feet apart, and she reached over and grabbed me by the neckline of my shirt. “You’re a liar. You don’t have cerebral palsy,” she spat. And then, with her hand still holding my shirt, she shoved me as hard as she could, and suddenly, I was on my back, surrounded by a few dozen people on the dance floor, pointing and laughing (which is what most people do when someone falls flat on their back in the middle of a crowded dance floor).

Within seconds, though, two people hoisted me to my feet, and I stood, once again, face-to-face with this girl. “You need to leave this place right now,” I said. “Leave.” And before she could even muster a response, two security guards walked over to her and escorted her out.

Her friend, the guy in the polo shirt, didn’t follow her. “I can’t believe she did that,” he said.

“It’s okay. It happens.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “My brother has cerebral palsy. I’m so sorry she did that.”

“Don’t worry about it. I fall all the time. I’m made of rubber,” I said.

*****

According to a 2008 study by the British Journal of Learning Support, nearly 25% of students, at some point, are the victims of bullying; among kids who live with physical or developmental disabilities, the number is closer to 60%. Other studies have suggested that disabled children are two to three times more likely to be chronically bullied, and in a “landmark” study conducted in 1994, researchers found that children with conditions like cerebral palsy were “more likely to be called names and aggressively excluded from social activities.”

Last September, 11-year-old Mitchell Wilson, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, committed suicide after a group of kids beat him to the ground, smashed out some of teeth, and stole his iPhone. Mitchell suffocated himself to death.

Mitchell Wilson

My heart aches for Mitchell and his family, because I know, first-hand, what it feels like to be bullied as a child because you walk differently or move more slowly than other kids.

Whenever this happened to me, whenever I felt sorry for myself or wondered why, existentially, I was born with a disability, my father would tell me, “Everyone has a disability. You’re fortunate, in many ways, because most people can see yours. Sometimes, it’s even more difficult for people who suffer from things that you can’t see.”

It’s advice that has carried me through life. It’s made me stronger. It’s made me more resilient, and I think it’s made me more understanding of those who think it’s funny to bully and humiliate the physically and mentally disabled– the notion that they too must be suffering from something, something so pernicious that they feel the need to hurt and humiliate people simply because they were born with a condition over which they have no control.

*****

I am 29 years old now, and even today, I still am sometimes ridiculed and bullied by strangers. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t bother me; of course it does. But at this point in my life, I’ve shaken off the last bit of self-pity that I may have ever possessed as a child. The girl at the Blue Nile, she didn’t upset me personally.  I’ve learned, through time, to be headstrong and to understand that the problem belonged exclusively to her. Still, when things like this happen to me (and they still do, more frequently than even my closest friends and family may imagine), I’m not bothered because I feel any sense of embarrassment or shame. At my age, when you’ve fallen in public as often as I have, you tend to develop an almost matter-of-factness about the whole thing. I’m bothered because I know that if a person is willing to make fun of me for my disability, to call me a liar and throw me on the ground, then they’re also capable of doing the same thing to people who are much more vulnerable than I am.

*****

I am who I am, and I have just as much of a right to share my perspective and my story as anyone else. If you think that I write about these issues in order to garner sympathy, then I seriously feel sorry for you. During the last year, one outspoken member of my hometown has publicly claimed on the Internet that I deserve to be labeled a “gimp” because I write about my disability to drum up sympathy.

I am not, have not, and have never written about my disability for sympathy. This is my life; it’s sometimes a big part of my life; it’s informed my opinions on certain issues. And now that I am adult, I feel more obligated than ever to share my perspective, to raise awareness, and to stand up to those bullies who think it’s perfectly acceptable to shove kids onto the ground, literally or figuratively, simply because they walk or talk differently.

The same person who has called me a “gimp” has also altered photos of me to make it appear as if I am wheelchair-bound. I would submit to him and to others who may think like him: The men and women, the boys and girls who must navigate through life in a wheelchair possess more courage, more strength, more integrity, and more compassion than anyone who would ever attempt to use a wheelchair as a symbol of inferiority or ridicule. And whenever you do something like this, whenever you encourage someone who believes this is perfectly acceptable, you are contributing to a culture of hatred and bigotry; you are endorsing a climate of intolerance that makes kids like Mitchell Wilson feel there’s no way out, that no matter what a kid like him could do in his life– graduate from college or become a doctor or a lawyer or a physicist– he’ll always be nothing more than a “gimp” in want of sympathy.

But kids like Mitchell remind me of my special obligation to stand up to bullies. Sure, sometimes, they may knock me down, but with a little help from my friends, I’ll always be back on my feet in seconds.

6 thoughts

  1. Funny, I always thought you just had a problem holding your liquor… No, seriously, Lamar, you are one of the least ‘disabled’ people that I know. If one defines the word as being “less than able” it certainly does not, nor can it ever, apply to you. Sure you walk funny (hey, who doesn’t…especially on Frenchman Street,) but you possess more ability than most people I know. To your point, the girl (and others) have the problem….and I suppose, even though you’ve overcome obstacles in your way, you may always be forced to encounter impediments, not of a physical nature, but of other’s psychological “disability.” It is to your credit that you have learned to handle these challenges with the humor and grace and aplomb as you do. I humbly tip my chapeau to you, sir, and urge you to carry on! Cheers!

    1. Thank you Brent. You know, one of my favorite things about Frenchman Street is that, more often than not, by the end of the night, I’m walking straighter and with better balance than the majority of people. Around 2 or 3 AM, it becomes like a parallel universe for someone like me.

      Again, thanks for your kind words. It means a lot to me. I could have written about the time in high school a big girl, probably three times my size (no lie), purposely threw me down and the drama that arose from that (I wasn’t as gracious with this girl as I was with the young woman at the Blue Nile; my high school friends were worried I was going to incite a riot or something), but high school is not nearly as much of a good time as the Blue Nile.

  2. As it is, New Orleans can be loving one minute, then knock you flat on your ass the next even if you don’t have CP. On behalf of this crazy town, I’m sorry that happened to you.

    I still have a t-shirt full of the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms.” She had a whole lot of these phrases, many of them contradictory, that she’d put on scrolling LED signs, get printed up on posters and shirts, and once, at the Venice Biennale, she had them chiseled into the surface of some marble benches. The shirt I have has these phrases, one right after the other:

    CHILDREN ARE THE HOPE OF THE FUTURE.
    CHILDREN ARE THE CRUELEST OF ALL.

    I got picked on big time all through grade school because I was overly sensitive and cried easily. I came home to a family that just couldn’t handle how I felt – or really give me good advice about how to take this garbage – and seemed to be unable to fight for me until it was blatantly obvious that this was affecting my life and my relationships. I am glad for the greater awareness of how bullying affects the victims (and the bullies themselves), but I hear about suicides like Mitchell’s and am faced, once again, with the terror the power of peer pressure can bring. A strong sense that what bullies say is not what makes up one’s identity is indeed key, but boy, when you’ve been down for so long, it’s tough to come back up. Fighting against bullying these days tends to involve much more than advice. I pray that more people – adults AND (hard as it can be for them) kids – stand up, because what will linger the longest in memory is when good people didn’t lift a finger.

    1. Thank you, liprap. And no need to apologize for New Orleans. I’ve got nothing but love for New Orleans, and it’s always been reciprocated.

      Also thank you for sharing your own experiences. It’s difficult for some parents to know what to say when their children are bullied. For many parents, the advice is simple: Fight back. To me, that is not necessarily the best advice; in some ways, it tacitly endorses bullying; it tells kids to reciprocate bad behavior.

      One thing I did not mention in the original post: Disabled kids are not only more likely to be bullied; some studies suggest they are also more likely to become bullies themselves. Now, unlike my brother and my sister, I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I imagine this is probably because these kids believe that bullying asserts themselves and establishes respect. Well, it doesn’t. It only contributes to the problem.

      Children are only cruel because they are taught that it’s acceptable– sometimes even important– to be cruel.

      A couple of months ago, a young friend of mine with cerebral palsy was feeling a little down about things. And I told him this, which is probably the advice I’d give to any disabled kid who feels depressed or is the victim of bullying. My “words of wisdom” (slightly edited and expanded):

      No matter what, you still have the ability to change the world, or, at the very least, to change your small corner of the world.

      You are only constrained by the limits of your own imagination. The smartest and most incredible thinker on the planet is a man who can only communicate through a computer. He’s changed the way we all think about the universe. Profoundly permanent. Think about that.

      In your short life, you have likely already been through more than the vast majority of people three times your age. The Buddha said that “life is suffering,” and at first, that may seem like a depressing thought. But he also said that our ability to transcend suffering and to understand where suffering comes from will guide us toward enlightenment and peace. If that is true, then you already have a head-start.

      When you feel depressed or ridiculed or jealous that you can’t do what other kids can, just remember: They also can’t do what you can do.

      Do not accept pity. Pity is a four-letter word. Pity is only dispensed by people who simply aren’t smart enough to understand that you may seem different but you’re actually the same as they are. So, instead of challenging themselves to recognize our shared humanity, they employ pity– not to make you feel better– but to make themselves feel better.

      When someone makes fun of you, always remember, as hard as it may be, that they are only doing so because they are insecure. The quickest way to disarm a bully is to treat him with empathy and understanding. Stand up for yourself, always. Stand up against injustice and bigotry. But never forget that the person who is hurting you– not because of anything you said or did, but because of how you were born– that person is hurting you because he’s suffering. And he just doesn’t know how to express his own pain any other way.

      ****

      When I was a kid, I was bullied by someone in my junior high school. (Alexandria is too small of a town, and my junior high was really small. So, I’ll be gender neutral here). This person was unnecessarily cruel and vicious to me. This person would try to purposely push me to the ground; they’d call me names. They’d go out of their way to make me feel excluded.

      A few years later, I learned that, at the time, this person was dealing with an abusive, alcoholic parent. Every day, after school, this person went home and lived in almost paralyzing fear. There was no way for me to have known that at the time. But when I learned of this, I instantly forgave everything this person had ever said or done to me. I realized that they were dealing with something far worse than I was, and they were, after all, just a kid, a kid who was taught, by one of their parents, how to terrorize and humiliate people.

      And it’s probably the case with most kids who resort to bullying the way this person did: They’re suffering, and the only way they can make themselves feel better about their own life is by doing to someone else what is being done to them. (Again, goes back to the theory that the bullied are often more likely to be bullies themselves).

      And that is why my father’s words still stick with me: Everyone has a disability.

  3. Wow, Lemar, very well said. And for the record, I run into things and fall down in public too, and I have no diagnosed physical disability that I know of other than my arms and legs seem to move about independently of my body. I’m just clumsy and I’ve been picked on for it a lot in my life, but I wear my lack of coordination like a badge when people call me Grace. Hey, I like to keep walking interesting.

    Obviously your interaction in the bar was an overt act of bullying, but there are lots of people who walk around and say things or act in ways toward others that isn’t as overt, but just as hurtful. The well-meaning Southern lady who reminds the young woman who is infertile that she “best be starting a family” says something that seems normal to her but drives a figurative knife into the broken heart of that woman doesn’t exactly have a shirt that says, “I can’t have children, so please don’t ask or bother me about it.”

    We’ve turned callousness into a zen-like thing in this country. With our voting-people-off-the-island mentality, our embarrass the less talented on national TV and this general-poke-fun-at-people way our people seem to have perfected to build individual superiority. In an almost bi-polar move we force people to be like us (praise God, believe in Jesus, only have heterosexual relationships) and yet at the same time devour those who come close to being better at what believe we have (God forbid an educated black man become President).

    There’s this old guy in New Orleans who used to make signs that said “Be Nice or Leave.” That needs to be the new law of the land. Sure, stand up for yourself and express a difference of opinion, but we’ve shed reverence and civility like it’s olde English.

    New Rules: 1) Mind your own business unless you’re trying to help or express concern. 2) Be nice, or leave. 3) Live and let live. If they aren’t doing the tarantella on your face, why should you care? 4) Accept diversity and multi-methodology, as in different strokes for different folks.

    Maybe we should all go back to the 80s sitcoms we grew up with (except for the hair, the hair was just wrong on so many levels).

    Thanks for sharing…

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