This rainy, dark morning I stepped onto the bus and tucked my Guiding Eyes Dog Elvis carefully under the seat for the ride to my triathlon coach’s gym. At the next stop, the gentleman I see each week at the local Starbucks stepped on. His name is Bill.
Bill has special needs. Bill is a Special Olympian, at least according to the jacket I see him wear every day. Bill cannot communicate verbally. You see, Bill has either had a severe stroke, Parkinson’s or has developmental challenges. I’m not sure exactly what has happened to his mind or body. But Bill is my friend.
People get on the bus and avoid us both. Me with my giant ‘scary’ (LOL) Labrador with a sign that says, “do Not Pet me, I’m Working”, and Bill, who shakes uncontrollably and tries desperately to form words with his severe stutter. People walk carefully around us both, trying to avoid contacting the guide dog, and trying to avoid what they don’t understand about Bill.
At first glance, one would think that Bill is not coherent or could be violent. He sits and shakes violently, and his speech is very altered. But he is kind. He is thoughtful. We have a sort of invisible communication, Bill and I. He shared a piece of pumpkin bread with me last week after my workout. Bill has pointed to his umbrella and wagged his finger at me, silently scolding me for forgetting mine on this dreary, drizzling day. He points to his jacket to tell me how cold it is outside. Sometimes he shows me the headlines in the local newspaper. And when I talk to him, he smiles.
One of the cool things I finally learned about Bill today is that he carries the branded bag for the destination that he’s traveling to. For instance, today, he was going to work at his part time job at a Plumbing Supply store in Stamford. He pointed to the bag when he got on the bus to show the driver his stop. “Genius!” I said aloud, and shook his hand enthusiastically. Bill beamed.
On my return from the gym, I sat next to a man named Pat, who also is visually impaired. He had recently gone through cane training, and was new to the bus. I welcomed him warmly, and tried to give him some pointers on figuring out the stops and how best to communicate your special needs to the drivers. Sadly, I’ve been passed by dozens of busses over the past 6 years, who thought I was just some woman walking her dog on the side of the road, not a passenger anxiously awaiting their arrival for pickup. There are few feelings more disheartening than being left by the side of the road in the cold, heat and rain to make you feel truly disabled.
But today? Today was a great day. I got to make a NEW friend going through a similar eye disease who I could genuinely assist, and got to see my incredibly brave friend Bill. Bill is brave because he boldly steps out into the world, unable to communicate in a traditional way. Brave because daily people fear and avoid and stare at him. I hope that the ten or fifteen minutes a week I get to spend with Bill makes him feel appreciated.
I remember the first time I met him at Starbucks and thought he was a homeless drunkard. Now I know Bill as a dog-lover, food-sharer, dedicated plumbing employee, and great caring mentor to me. Mentor? Yes. Bill has taught me so much in the short interactions we’ve had. One; it doesn’t take much to make one’s day- a smile, an appreciative point to one’s umbrella or sweater. Two; being disabled is like it’s own secret club. And honestly? I wouldn’t change one thing about my membership card.