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I know the exact moment I fell madly in love with the man who would become my husband. 

It was a busy Sunday morning at the Good Earth. He checked us in with the hostess, who gave him a pager and told him it would go off in about an hour. We decided to wait outside in the windy but beautiful and sunny fall weather for our table instead of with the sea of people in the waiting area. Though we had only been dating for two months, the conversation flowed effortlessly, and it seemed like the pager was buzzing after only five minutes even though an hour had passed. 

The hostess walked quickly through the crowded restaurant, not noticing that we were far behind her because my wheelchair couldn’t fit between all the occupied chairs. My now-husband took the lead and walked in front of me, clearing the way by asking people to stand up and push their chairs in. This was our first time going to a crowded restaurant, and I was impressed at how proficient he was at crowd control. This process usually left me feeling embarrassed and like there was no room for me, but it wasn’t awkward at all this time.   

Once we were seated, we quickly looked over the menu. “I’m getting the pumpkin pancakes, applesauce on the side, and a finish line shake,” I said. 

“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll get the same.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised he wasn’t studying the menu for a possibly better option. “Don’t you want bacon or something like that with it?” 

“No. I’m going to follow your lead and give this vegetarian thing a try for you.” He shrugged his shoulders as if saying “why not” and smiled at me. I felt so comfortable with him that I didn’t even care that my hair I spent almost an hour doing that morning was a mess from waiting outside for our table. I felt a peace and contentment I had never felt on a date before, and I hoped he felt the same. 

I put our menus on the edge of the table, glanced up, and saw what looked to be a middle-aged woman smiling, staring, and walking toward me with that unmistakable do-gooder look on her face. I was jolted out of my love-struck state and into that familiar sinking feeling of disappointment and shame. I knew what was about to happen would happen in front of this guy eventually, but I liked this guy and was hoping to expose him to the awkward societal realities of dating a woman who uses a wheelchair in small increments, not in the avalanche this date was turning out to be. He’s a levelheaded and reasonable type of guy, and I worried he wouldn’t think I was worth it to deal with the absurdity of what was about to happen. As she made her way through the crowd, getting closer and closer, I helplessly braced myself for humiliation. 

She arrived at our table, said hello to us in a singsongy voice, and as her arm reached toward my head, I clenched my jaw, waiting for the condescending pat on the head along with the slew of degrading comments. As she went in for the pat, my date instinctively reached up, grabbed her wrist, stopping her hand from touching me, and in a tone that was both stern and friendly said, “What are you doing?”

She looked startled, and he quickly stood up, let go of her wrist, told her to take a few steps back, and asked her again what she was doing. Her eyes darted between him and the floor, and her mouth hung open while she said nothing. He stood there, not breaking his gaze on her, and quietly waited for her response. 

This is not at all how this had ever played out before. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. It somehow was so ingrained in me that I had to willingly accept and allow this kind of mistreatment by people that seeing someone not allow it was mind-blowing. As I watched in astonishment, I noticed I wasn’t feeling embarrassed and small like I usually do when this happens. This time the perpetrator looked embarrassed and small! Her face was bright red, and I could guess she was trying to think of an answer but had realized that saying out loud what she was about to do—that she was going to pat me on the head and tell me how adorable I was or how good it was to see me out—now sounded as ridiculous and inappropriate as it in fact was. 

A long, tense minute passed until she finally said, “I’m sorry,” and quickly walked away. After she left, I stared at him in a shock-like state with a huge smile. He smiled back and, while applying Purell to his hands with detailed precision, asked me if this type of thing happened often. 

“More often than you’d think,” I said, anxious for his response. 

He leaned back in his chair, paused thoughtfully, and said, “Good, it will keep things interesting.” Then he winked at me, and that was the end of the incident. 

He was unfazed. He wasn’t embarrassed or scared off, and for the first time, I didn’t feel small and ashamed of myself. I felt like a person of value, which was an entirely new feeling for me in this situation. Instead of feeling powerless, I felt empowered. This was the moment I knew I was completely in love with him.

Up until that moment, the standard routine for this scenario went like this: A random stranger awkwardly approaches me, pats me on the head, and says something equally condescending and humiliating. Sometimes they ask if they can pray for me. Or they might say something like, “If someone like you can be up and out of the house, I should stop complaining!” Or if they think they’re funny, they look at my wheelchair and ask me if I “have a license to drive that thing.” I’m only passively present because my imagination is running wild, wondering where their hand has been. Did they just use the bathroom, pick their nose, cough into their hand, or worse? Wherever their hand has been, it’s now been on my head. I feel dirty and violated and can’t wait to go home and shower. This runs through my head while they’re speaking, but I keep silent for their comfort. I betray my self-worth because I don’t feel like I have any power when this happens, and in giving in to that feeling, I become an active participant in my mistreatment. Then, deep shame takes over, and I give them a friendly smile and say thank you. Then they usually ask my date if he is my brother or “helper” because the idea I could have a boyfriend is out of the realm of possibility to them. I feel small and dehumanized while the person I’m dating, who is now also embarrassed as well as creeped out about being asked if he is my brother, stares at me, not knowing what just happened. I then typically excuse the behavior by saying, “They’re just trying to be nice,” and try to pretend it didn’t bother me in the hope of making it all go away, even though I know I will feel out of sorts and depressed for days following. The whole cycle is awkward and gross, but until that day at the Good Earth, I couldn’t see a way out.

It’s been twenty-five years since this particular incident when my perspective was forever changed. I would like to say that it hasn’t happened again, but of course, it has been attempted. The scenario takes a new course now, however. Now, as soon as I see them coming, I use a calm and friendly tone to tell them not to touch me. This usually stops them in their tracks, and they don’t get close enough to make physical contact. Then, as if we are having a friendly conversation, I simply ask them why they wanted to touch my head. That’s it. The perpetrator is usually so embarrassed that they just walk away. Occasionally some of them will want to talk about it. They stop and listen to what it’s like being on the receiving end of this behavior. Most of them say they never thought about it from that perspective. I love it when this happens because it’s where real understanding and hopefully change begins. 

The moment my date calmly but firmly stopped that woman from patting me on the head was the first time someone confronted the behavior. As sad as it sounds, I didn’t think that was an option. It had happened so many times beginning in childhood that I just got used to the soul-destroying offense. I had thought this kind of treatment was unchangeable, a fact of life. But when he stopped her, it was one of those moments when you realize you’ve been living in the dark, but now you’ve seen the light, and you can’t unsee it. My now-husband opened an entirely new reality to me. I saw myself through his eyes in that moment as a person worthy of dignity and personal space. I had never seen myself that way before in this scenario. I expected him to be repulsed and uncomfortable with the situation and with me for causing the unpleasant interaction just by being. Instead, he saw the perpetrator as the repulsive one, and that was incredibly freeing. 

Looking back at the beliefs I used to have about myself is heartbreaking. I used to believe being treated with dignity and having personal boundaries weren’t things that applied to me simply because I was disabled. Public humiliation and degradation were just things I accepted as my normal. I have compassion for that version of myself because I was working with what I had at the time, but I don’t miss that person at all. 

Now, I am much more comfortable with myself and the space I occupy in the world. But whenever I forget and start to feel small again, I remember the astonishment and empowerment I felt when my now-husband stopped that woman, and I am reminded of my worth.