Sleigh_HeaderOur personal mode of being in the world is among the most important aspects of ourselves. The manner in which we interact with other human beings has the power to heal or hurt, inspire or discourage, empower or disenfranchise. A simple smile or gesture can have effects that ripple out across the ocean of souls, extending far beyond our horizon. The story you are about to read illustrates this principle.

I met Robert Lancaster nearly twenty years ago while I was working at The Walt Disney Company. Some of you know him. We worked together as part of a large software development team. A huge bear of a man with a bushy gray beard, Robert is an original. In spite of the outward appearance of a Disney villain (Robert’s words), he is a gentle and thoughtful man with an eclectic variety of interests. One of these is collecting decks of unusual playing cards, a hobby that persists to this day. Throughout his time at Disney, Robert maintained a “Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards” in his cubicle, and we all delighted in the whimsy and artistry of the displays.

Becoming Disabled
In 2008, Robert suffered a serious stroke that left him largely paralyzed. Consequently, he has needed to use a wheelchair (an electric mobility aid) for the past six years. Having one’s ability to move taken away in this manner is challenging on many levels. Robert and I have discussed several aspects of this change because my wife has needed a wheelchair most of her adult life. The biggest adjustments, though, have to do with how other people – including people in the health care industry, believe it or not – react to and treat people in wheelchairs.

Because of my wife’s situation, I have seen this most of my married life. Consequently, I can speak with some authority. On the whole, most folks treat people in wheelchairs in the same manner they treat everyone else. Those who do not, however, display a wide range of behaviors. Some cannot make eye contact. Others will speak only with the disabled person’s companion as if the person in the chair were mentally deficient. I have seen some raise their voices to the chair-bound individual as though she were deaf, not mobility challenged. A few are openly disdainful as though the disabled person had somehow conspired to ruin their day. In each case, the encounter requires the skin of an elephant and the tact of a diplomat. Then there are the children. I will let Robert tell his story in his own words.

Robert’s Story
“It was in December of 2009 and was one of the first times I was out in public since I had been in the chair. Susan and I were in the lobby of a Denny’s waiting to settle our bill when a young family entered the restaurant. It was a Mom and Dad with their two sons, about six and ten years old.

“As we were paying, the younger boy was eyeing me and my chair while slowly edging my way, his curiosity about the chair gradually overcoming his reservations about approaching the fat, gray-bearded guy in it. (I would later come to learn that just about all boys of that age are fascinated with the chair, apparently reasoning, “It has a joystick, so it has to be cool!”) When he got to within eight feet or so (his older brother right behind, ready to keep his kid brother safe), the child looked up at me and, pointing at my chair, asked, “What is that?”

“As I tried to think of the least-scary, age-appropriate yet true answer to that, the older brother stepped up to the younger, bent low so that his head was level with his kid brother’s. Once the six-year old turned to face him, the older and wiser brother gestured towards my chair and stage-whispered, “That’s his sleigh!” (Remember, Steve, this was in December).

“The younger’s eyes got wide as saucers, and he looked up at me in wonder for confirmation of this. I smiled, nodded, and with perhaps a touch more jolliness in my voice than usual said, “Yes, the reindeer are taking a break right now!”

“The older brother gave the younger one a “you see, what did I tell you?” look, exchanged a conspiratorial grin with me, and ushered his brother over to a far corner as I drove my sleigh out into the crisp night air.

“Suddenly, being in a wheel chair wasn’t such a bad thing after all.”

In his story, Robert passed his own initiation rite and became an ambassador. He chose not to be “the bitter guy in the wheelchair” but instead an emissary of magic. Every single encounter with a fellow human being – whether it is with someone who gets it or not – becomes an opportunity to spread the light. Both of those children will likely remember that moment, and who knows how it will be remembered in the years to come or what influence it might have? The effects of that gesture have already rippled out beyond Robert’s horizon.

The lesson, of course, is not just for the disabled. It is for all of us. We each have disabilities, some more obvious than others. Each of has the choice to be bitter and cynical or positive and gracious. In the process, perhaps we can lead a few others to the light. Through our mode of being in the world, we can pass on amazing magic while inspiring others to do the same. After all, isn’t that the point of having a sleigh?

What is your favorite Ambassador story? How has someone’s “mode of being” influenced you?

Card Courtesy of the

Robert Lancaster Gallery

of Unusual Playing Cards

7 thoughts on “Ambassador

  1. Kyra Humphrey says:

    My experience truly reinforces this one. I have also been the recipient of “magic” from a stranger, sometimes as simple as a “thumbs up”, and it has radiated throughout the day. I am hopeful that a wave of this is actually being recognized in society as well, in such manifestations as the Random Acts of Kindness movement, and even Flash Mobs (Handel’s “Halleluiah Chorus”, Pharrell’s “Happy”)

  2. bimuse says:

    Exactly, Kyra. Another example might be the ubiquitous “Sequim wave.” It strikes me that that particular local institution may well find its way into these pages one day. Thank you for the thoughts.

  3. Julie says:

    My 77 year old mother suffered a severe brain hemorrhage just over 5 years ago, the effects of which are much the same as for a stroke – her left side is largely paralyzed, and she also needs a wheelchair to get around. No joystick for mum though, as she has left side neglect (the left hand side of her world has disappeared, with no awareness that it SHOULD be there… which of course means she would be a complete liability if left in control of her own mobility). She has some cognitive impairment as a result of the hemorrhage, although you could have a perfectly normal conversation with her, and unless you knew her well, you’d never know.

    We’ve encountered the “talking about her as though she’s not there” phenomenon, although in her case, sometimes it’s partially justified. She will answer questions with great certainty, and sometimes complete lack of accuracy – a dangerous combination when the questions concern your medical history.

    Another consequence of spending time with a wheelchair user is that you become a bit of a connoisseur of disabled toilets. Is it a right-handed or left-handed one? (If your left side is paralyzed, you want vertical grab rails on the right hand wall, as you sit on the loo.) Is there enough space to manouvre a wheelchair inside the cubicle/room? And so on.

    Anyway, I confess that before mum’s hemorrhage, my reaction to casual encounters with most people with mental or physical disabilities (e.g. walking around a supermarket) was typically to quietly pretend they weren’t they simply weren’t there. These days, I find myself offering a smile, or even a snippet of inconsequential conversation. I figure just a little bit of normality can go a long way.

    I’ve seen some severely disabled people using truly amazing wheelchairs and other mobility aids, including one with a hydraulic height adjustment, which allows the user to raise up to standing height (I assume only whilst stationary – sadly, that was an instance where I didn’t get an opportunity to find out more). Imagine how much of a difference that makes – no longer do you have to live with people literally taking down to you.

    Regardless of the mobility method used by non-walkers, there’s always something friendly or just normal that you can say, given the slightest opportunity, even if it’s only “great t-shirt you’re wearing”.

    • bimuse says:

      And of course, Julie, that Ambassadorship works both ways, doesn’t it? And yes, daily “immersion” tends to increase our own awareness of access issues in all forms, including bathrooms. Thank you for extending the conversation.

    • Robert Lancaster says:

      Julie, I had a fairly mild case of “left-side neglect” after my stroke. After it was diagnosed and explained to me, I knew that whenever I couldn’t find something that I KNEW “was there just a minute ago”, I needed to focus intently to my left and “ping!” it would magically appear. Our brains are truly weird and wonderful things.

  4. Ruth Fisher says:

    My dad was a doctor, and he used to say, “Everybody has SOMETHING.” I’ve thought about that often over the years, and it has provided me with great solace, especially at low points.

    My dad also used to say that the luckiest people were those who had developed some chronic problem early in life and had learned to deal with it. These people did much better later in life, when other people who had been “luckier” not to have had any problems started experiencing the typical problems associated with aging and were completely unprepared to deal with them.

  5. bimuse says:

    That is certainly the case with my wife, Ruth. I think much of her strength comes from having to “live above” her physical limitations for most of her life. I have another close friend who is an even more profound example of that. Fortunately, many who do come to challenges later in life are able to grow stronger from the experience and deliver value from it. Thank you so much for stopping in.

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