It was a typical afternoon rush hour on public transit. People crammed onto the bus, clinging to poles and hanging straps in an effort to remain stable during travel. I gravitated towards a pole and hung on – as more people boarded, I looked through the spaces, searching for the next pole I to which could move. The hanging straps and bars overhead were too far out of my reach and would make it difficult for me to grip. I tried my best to step to the side, encouraging taller, more able people to fill in the spaces that remained. A woman, at least a head taller than me, tried to force me away from my support – suddenly, I heard myself say “please go ahead, I have arthritis and have difficulty reaching over head”.
I wasn’t really thinking about it, it just flew out of my mouth. After years of masking my situation, I was forced to play the arthritis card. I’ve never had to do that before. I find people on most days to be congenial and polite, however, in the last couple of days I’ve noticed a strange vibe in the air, making people grumpy, intolerant and in some cases rendering them completely obtuse. I don’t know if it’s the moon teasing our emotions, or the mounting stresses that rise out of a growing population of a major city, or the suffocating heat that has arrived too early in our part of the world, but something has been seething beneath the surface, making people impatient, frustrated and, in some cases, downright rude.
After I announced my difficulty, a young woman stood up and offered me her seat. I didn’t really need it and was kind of hesitant to accept it, but I was impressed that somebody had recognized my struggle. I saw people looking at me after my rather clumsy announcement. I knew what they were thinking – in spite of my finger splints I saw the expression on their faces: “she doesn’t look sick” – but that shouldn’t have mattered. The fact is, we don’t really know what battles people are fighting, and I shouldn’t have to be unwell or look disabled to have access to a safety feature on public transportation. It bothered me that the only way to earn some respect and consideration was to play the arthritis card. It’s odd how quickly a change in perception occurs when someone sees you as ill or disabled. There are many reactions to learning about someone’s malady, and sometimes, they are not always cordial. Here is a powerful post from Carla’s Corner about her experience when an invisible disease becomes visible: https://carlascorner.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/being-invisible-reprise/
I didn’t realize I had the arthritis card tucked into my back pocket. My invisible disease usually plays its part to perfection – dealing with it has fallen into the natural realm of my daily routine. I am not ashamed of having arthritis, in fact I lay my cards out every week on this blog and I’ve shared my story a few times – and surely, this type of behaviour shouldn’t be about arthritis or any chronic illness – it should be about a general respect for people. I don’t feel it’s necessary to play my arthritis card, but from this unexpected experience, I’ve learned that I will put my safety and well-being before discourtesy and ignorance, and in the future I will not hesitate to pull out my cards and let them fall where they may.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.