Monday, August 17, 2009

I beg to differ.

So there I was, minding my own business, waiting to be picked up by friends outside a hotel in downtown Johannesburg, when a well meaning gentleman took the time and effort to cross the street, walk up the front steps, and deposit a handful of cash in my lap! No, he wasn't trying to rid himself of the proceeds of a cash-in-transit heist. He thought I was begging! Curiousity was followed by shock, which was followed by a quick "Excuse me!", whereupon the money was returned. He looked sheepish, and I couldn't stop laughing. I wrote the incident off to him being Johannesburg-disadvantaged (a common ailment up there) brought on by a shortage of sea air and lack of mountains.

Then it happened to me again, this time in Cape Town, which blew my theory. I was sitting outside Fruit & Veg City waiting for my wife to park the car (because, surprise surprise, some able-bod had filled the disabled bay). Before I could say "artichoke" someone dropped a handful of coins in my lap! Flurry of activity, return of funds, and embarrassed looks all round. This time I put it down to my slightly dishevelled state having just got off an SAA flight. When flying with SAA in a wheelchair one often ends up looking in a worse state than your luggage.

In the bad old days our government legislated that if more than "x" number of people assembled together it constituted an "illegal gathering". Perhaps there is a parallel universe wherein if a wheelchair bound person sits in one spot for more than five minutes it constitutes begging?

A social activity one learns when in a wheelchair is "loitering". I loiter a lot. I linger longer. I loiter outside inaccessable shops while my wife runs amok with her credit card in a frantic but failing attempt to keep ahead of SAA Voyagers ever changing goalposts. I loiter outside shopping malls waiting for parking, and I loiter outside camera, watch and hardware stores, because I'm a man. If I'm in my powerchair then I "pace", and this movement tends to keep potential donors at bay. It's difficult for a novice good samaritan to casually sweep by and drop cash if the target keeps moving. But in my manual chair I'm rooted to a spot, and that runs the risk of turning me into a human ATM.

Begging is a profession made for us invalids. We don't need affirmative action, or employment equity, to give us a leg up. We're already half way up the proverbial ladder. What can an able-bodied beggar do that we cannot do better? We're naturally sedentary (that's a big word for seated), so a long day outside Woolies front door is just another day in the saddle for us. In India parents maim their kids to increase their begging potential but we've got built-in physical deformities. Some of us look pretty gaunt and scrawny, always a plus. The lean and hungry look is a big seller.

But for most of us begging is an affront to our disability. It represents the exact opposite of everything we are striving for. We seek financial independence, employment, and mobility. Begging represents financial dependence, unemployment, and physical inactivity. Perhaps this is why when a well intentioned donor drops some cash into one's lap it is such a shock. For a brief moment you realise that you are seen by others to be everything which you fight against every minute of your waking day. But there is another aspect, and that is the actual money itself. Those coins are viewed by the donor as being their contribution to our dilemma. But we know that money is not the solution. Deeds count for more. Far rather that person kept their coins, but made the effort to see to it that their offices had disabled toilets, or their local school was accessable, or the shop had a ramp. That would really make a difference.

Now if only these kind folks would deposit a REALLY substantial amount of money into my grubby little paws, then I might reconsider this begging thing . . .