When Christina and I first became good friends 10 years ago, she confided to me that she had always wanted a little sister. (Since I am a little sister and I know how annoying they can be, I remember asking, “Why???”) Minutes later, she decided that I would fill this role and make her dreams of being a big sister come true. When she affectionately told sales assistants and cashiers that I was her sister, they would glance with skepticism at our differing hair color and complexions, at my cane and her scooter, and say, “Really?” We would then explain that we had always felt and acted like sisters, even if there was no biological basis for the relationship.
She and I were among the few disabled students at our high school – and we were certainly the most visible. With her bright red scooter and my white cane, we were easy to spot and often spotted together, though she was a year ahead of me. Several times, we spoke at conferences or appeared at award ceremonies, often winning the same honors for our respective years. We were both named Women of Vision in 2006 and we walked up to accept the award together, my hand resting on the arm of her scooter.
I became very familiar with this method of sighted guide, my hand riding on the arm of the scooter or sliding to the back of the seat when Christina ordered firmly, “OK go behind me.” The movements felt fluid and natural. The scooter’s armrest was at the perfect height for my hand, and, once we established a good pace, Christina and I cruised along together. When we started college, we glided to and from class, made trips to the on-campus Starbucks, and spent whole days wandering around the Town Center. Employees at our regular stops – Sephora, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Target – recognized us and usually gave us top-notch service…although we both remember a cold, rainy January Saturday that we later called “National Be Rude to Disabled Customers Day” where every clerk we encountered either spoke too loudly, snatched items out of our hands, or ignored us.
Christina and I have mastered the art of the marathon shopping day, complementing each other’s abilities with finesse. We establish a route, make a list, and begin the day with coffee. In most places, the cash register and card-swiping machine are beyond her reach, so she hands her card to me and tells me where to swipe it. We apply the same principles when looking for items in a store; she tells me where to reach and I do the reaching. When we break for lunch or cocktails in the afternoon, I move items across the table so she can easily access them, but first, she tells me where they are.
The first time I remember realizing just how well we worked together was when she taught me how to use makeup, specifically how to apply eyeshadow. I had just gotten a new set of makeup brushes and Christina patiently explained what each brush was for. She took me through the application of one color, then two, and showed me how to blend them. We even tried eyeliner, but I ended up with a more “dramatic” look than I desired so I tossed away the thin pencil and picked up the soft brushes again.
Her studio lessons went like this: I would sit before her in a low chair and hold the makeup and brushes in my lap, handing her one at a time. She would use one product on my face, touching areas where it should be applied, and always doing me the courtesy of bracing my face with one hand before she came at me with a makeup brush. (When you can’t see someone coming toward you with the applicator, suddenly feeling it on your face will make you jump.) She would take my hand and mimic the appropriate motion and then have me try to apply the product by myself. She would use a finger to blend my eyeshadow or show me how to tap excess powder off my brush. She explained different “looks” to me – casual, dressy, smoky, classic, dramatic, soft – and describe what colors suited my face. She explained what it meant when someone said, “Oh that shade makes your eyes pop!” Experimenting with shades of olive green or plum, she would make up one of my eyes and hand me a mirror so I could see the difference. I was blown away by how certain colors on the eyelid could change the size and shape of my eye.
After we finished my face, we would move on to Christina’s hair, where it was my turn to be the expert. Though she didn’t have as much to learn about hair styling as I did about cosmetics, she would tell me what style she wanted, and I would create it. Just as I couldn’t observe another person’s makeup well enough to replicate the colors on my own face, Christina couldn’t reach far enough behind her to pull her hair into a ponytail or twist it up into a bun.
Our collaborations spilled over into the kitchen, where Christina would hold pots while I stirred and added spices. She would tell me when our baked ziti was brown and bubbly, and I would make her smell all the different herbs and decide which to add. She washed dishes and I dried them and put them away, making sure that the plates and bowls she preferred went on the lower shelves where she could access them.
During the two years we lived together, we conquered every area of the apartment, each completing the chores we preferred and cooking the dishes we had practiced to perfection. She insisted that the coffee tasted better if I brewed it and fixed her cup. I insisted that lunch was far superior when she made it.
Before people learned to recognize us as a traveling duo, they were skeptical of the arrangement. I imagine that they thought that two disabled women traveling together made even more disability, that the presence of disability multiplies exponentially in the presence of another disability. I think these ideas only hold truth if we cling to the idea that disability represents deficit. If you put two deficits together, then naturally, you get a greater deficit. How can a disabled person help another disabled person? How can two disabled women manage to get anything done?
Just as naturally, when I work, travel, shop, cook, or hang out with Christina, the idea of deficit does not seem relevant. I won’t say that our disabilities disappear, because the very ways we’ve learned to help each other are based on our weaknesses and strengths. For me, our collaborations, fed by creativity, determination, and humor, offer a very simple message.
Rather than speculating about the abilities someone possesses and what limits your thinking will impose, stand back and observe. Watch as Christina tells me the exact location of the perfume I want to sample. Listen as I place my hand on her armrest and the hum of her electric wheelchair (a recent upgrade!) matches the gravelly scraping of my cane on the cement. I’m sure we’ll come to a store that doesn’t have automatic doors — she’ll tell me where the handle is and I’ll open the door and hold it for her. Does it look difficult?
I don’t mean to suggest that we never encounter obstacles. Sometimes there isn’t enough room for me to get ahead of her and open a door. Sometimes a door doesn’t open the right way and we have to back up and turn around. Often, a person steps forward and offers us assistance.
I suppose what I’m wondering is this: When I’m with Christina, I don’t sense a deficit. Do you?