By Mark E. Smith
We hear of those who note that disability can be a hindrance in social settings. After all, if you roll into a club of the glamorous, and you’re the one using a wheelchair, it visually tags you as “different.” However, even in the most superficial of social scenes, who says that appearing as “different” because you use a wheelchair has to be bad for your social life? In fact, is it possible that your “difference” can actually work for you in the positive when it comes to making new friends and winning over a room full of strangers?
If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that I’m an always-upbeat, outgoing kind of guy, enjoying any social setting. I smile and say hello to everyone. I shake hands with men, and kiss women on the cheek. And, I always throw humor, wit, and charm into every conversation. I genuinely like people, and I learned long ago that when I relate warmly to others, they respond equally well to me. Sure, my disability still freaks out some people, but I find that in almost any circumstance, my personality can move them over to a level of comfort that helps them see beyond my disability, to the point where it can even give me an edge over others in a social scene.
I have been known to end up out carousing with friends every once in a while, landing at hip, trendy clubs where the guys and gals take pages from the Hollywood set. The dudes are typically pumped-up and decked-out in their designer duds, and the women are usually bleached, tanned, and nail-polished like Barbie dolls on the loose with Daddy’s platinum card. What’s often striking among such crowds, though, is that at some point, one of the “beautiful people” usually asks someone in my group who I am? In fact, recently a woman in such a scene asked if I was someone famous? My friends and I, of course, thought that the woman’s question was hilarious, especially since we overheard one of my friends reply, “That’s Mark – of course he’s famous.”
But, why would a stranger in a club ask if a cerebral-palsied guy using a wheelchair like me was famous?
Probably because when I’m out, I go big – all in, large and in charge.
I roll in elevated on my power chair’s seat lift, bump fists with the door man, and smile as I stroll through the crowd. I make eye contact with everyone I see, saying, “Hey, how are ya,” and move in like I owned the place. Within minutes, I’m chatting it up with folks around me, soon I’m grooving to the music, and my cache grows from there. At some point, the band often dedicates a song to me, and I end up partying the night away like a rock star, drawing moral boundaries when needed, but having such an over-the-top time that my friends know that there will be Monday morning stories to tell – or deny.
So, how do we, as those with disabilities, roll into a social situation and sway it our way? Or, more aptly, how does a big-eared, goofy-smiled, spastic dork like me me win over a jet-set crowed of strangers?
With energy and confidence – that’s how. It amazes me how some with disabilities automatically presume that the fact that they appear physically different penalizes them socially among strangers. But, it doesn’t have to. I mean, sure, if you’re utterly self-conscious about you’re disability, it will absolutely hold you back, where people may very well observe that you are shy, insecure, and uncomfortable when you roll into a room. And, no one seeking a good time wants to be around a shy, insecure, uncomfortable person with a disability – or any such person, for that matter.
However, what I’ve learned is that our “differences,” including disability, don’t have to be limiting disadvantages; rather, our “differences” can unquestionably serve us as empowering distinctions. It’s all in how we present ourselves – that is, outgoing, confident, and comfortable.
When you roll into a social scene in a wheelchair, people will notice you – and that can be a huge advantage over others who simply blend in when they enter a room. With everyone’s eyes drawn to you because you’re different, you then have the opportunity to turn it into a distinction by flashing your smile, making eye contact, saying hello to everyone you encounter, acting like you’re all but running for political office – that is, you can exude a confidence and charisma that’s unmistakable, where people think to themselves, “Who’s this cool cat in the wheelchair working the room?”
Then, there’s a snowball effect, with others noticing that people are warming up to you, peaking everyone’s interest even further. Next thing you know, you’ve got an entire scene of people comfortable, with women and men alike actually coming up and introducing themselves to you, where you’re holding court in the center of the place like you’re a true celeb. In these ways, it’s amazing how quickly you can turn your entire persona as one with a disability from one of obviously different to captivatingly distinct.
Surely, rolling into a room full of strangers like you’re a rock star is a scary thought for some. After all, lots of people are self-conscious and shy, and the perceived difference that disability suggests can absolutely affect one’s self-confidence for the worst – all of which adds up to making it seemingly impossible to pickup one’s social game and view one’s wheelchair as a people-magnet. Plus, based on lifestyle and career, some people don’t have an opportunity to hone their social skills as much as others.
However, it truly doesn’t take too much confidence or skill to begin – just enough courage and awareness to thrust yourself into the scene, and smile, make eye contact, and have light conversation. I often try to ditch my friends at some point when we’re out, and go off on my own to meet new people simply because it’s a skill that takes constant developing, where the more we socialize with strangers, the easier it gets – practice makes perfect. If you look at it that way, it’s truly quite simple, isn’t it? I may feel insecure on the inside, but I’m going to suck it up, flash a smile, look others in the eyes, and work my way through the crowd like I’m the popular co-ed on campus! And, you will be.
Now, just like anyone looking to work a social scene, it’s important to address the occasion as a whole, aware of how you present yourself and who you associate with. For starters, always dress appropriately for the occasion. If you show up at your local hot-spot in stained sweatpants and a wheelchair expecting to win over a crowed, you’ll appear out of place at best, creepy at worst. Disability doesn’t negate pride in appearance, and you should dress with flair, where people’s eyes transition from your wheelchair to noting how well you’re decked-out. Call it shallow, but simply dressing nice, with good grooming, goes a long way toward increasing one’s status, wheelchair or not.
Similarly, use discretion toward who you’re around – and who’s around you. Let’s face it, if the social scene has booze, the person using a wheelchair will likely become a draw for drunks. “I love you, man!” every drunk will say, putting their arms around you, patronizing. Stay away from these people, and when they approach, make it clear that you want them to leave you alone, period. You want others in the room to see you as empowered, and if others see you engaged with drunks patronizing you, others will likely write you off, back to “different” instead of as distinct. Esteemed, empowered people don’t associate with slobbering drunks, and neither should those with disabilities.
Put simply, view your wheelchair as a positive hook toward capturing attention, then let your class, character, and personality carry you the rest of the way. Dress the part, act the part, and make yourself the one to be known, disability and all.
Make no mistake, your disability will get others’ attention, but you have the ability to dictate that it’s for the better. The next time you’re out on the town, roll into the social scene like you own it, flashing a never-ending smile, acknowledging everyone with eye contact, striking up conversations with a quick wit, and show the room with your empowered presence that you’re not just the one with the wheelchair, but also the one with the charisma and personality to set the place ablaze.