I have a little tradition to search for handmade jewelry when I travel, usually rings or earrings. It’s my favorite way to bring home a piece of where I’ve been. Since I just visited New Mexico for the first time to join my family in celebrating my cousin’s wedding, I was especially excited to see what I’d find because I love southwestern jewelry designs. My mom (who also uses a wheelchair), my dad, and I ventured to Old Town in Albuquerque one afternoon to look around and when we reached the first shop, Native Gallery, I was immediately drawn to rows of earrings and beautiful pottery. Not even 10 seconds after entering the shop, I gravitated toward some rainbow bowls in the front of the store and was already contemplating buying one when the shopkeeper came over to my family and said “there’s no room for you here.”
Mind you, the aisles were a bit narrow but I have the depth perception to know my wheelchair would fit through and the common sense not to drive like a wild woman through a store full of valuable breakables. There was undeniably room for us. So, I began to explain that we were fine and would be very careful, but the shopkeeper again insisted there was “no room” for us and demanded we leave.
My dad, who was standing up and is obviously taller than me, could plainly see the shopkeeper was lying about the lack of space. In fact, aside from the one couple he was ringing up, there wasn’t a single other customer in the store. There was plenty of room. Based on the look of horror on the shopkeeper’s face when he saw two wheelchair users roll through the entrance, the urgency with which he jumped up to ask us to leave, and his persistent arguing that we couldn’t stay, it was clear he just didn’t want us to patronize his shop, or assumed we’d cause damage, and so he thought it best to kick us out rather than finding a way to accommodate us.
I sort of get it, maybe. Power wheelchairs in a store full of fragile pottery are risky and the shopkeeper wanted to protect his goods, but the reality is that anyone could accidentally break something. At the very least, he could’ve offered to bring some pieces to the front for us. But no matter how many times we pointed out that turning disabled people away from your public business is discriminatory and illegal, the shopkeeper ultimately forced us away.
I just wanted to buy a ring. I wanted a taste of what New Mexico has to offer. I wanted to enjoy the late afternoon sun and the colorful boutiques with my parents. I love exploring new places. Yet it seems every time I try to embrace my independence like any other human being, someone stops me in my tracks and reminds me that disabled people are still not fully welcome in this world we inhabit.
In most cases, it’s structural barriers that prove unwelcoming. Steps and narrow entryways are warning signs to stay away. Because of this, I’m generally inclined to give my business to places where the architecture isn’t keeping me out. Of course, there are plenty of instances where I take one look at a place and can tell there’s no way I will actually be able to navigate safely or easily. But I have learned to make my way around in environments not designed with accessibility in mind. I have learned how to weave through curves and make sharp turns, how to roll forward at just the right angle and slip through tight spaces. Within the realms of accessibility, where I go is my decision to make.
And so, even as the sting of this encounter flowed through me, I was still determined to find a ring. We went to a shop around the block called de Colores Galleria. There, the owner was lovely, accommodating my mom and I as we narrowed down our jewelry options, never making us feel as though we were unwelcome or in the way.
While she helped us, my mom shared with the woman behind the jewelry counter what had happened at the other shop. The woman was mortified, apologizing on behalf of Old Town. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “That’s not good for Old Town. And that’s not good for you.” We appreciated that, and thanked her profusely for her hospitality before we left.
My mom and I felt compelled to thank the second shopkeeper because her kindness was such a refreshing change from our first encounter. That said, we were essentially thanking this woman for treating us like people. It’s a painful reality of my existence that I find myself expressing gratitude when people communicate with me in such a way that shows they see me as deserving of equality and respect.
As I sat down to recount this shopping debacle in writing, my stomach tightened at the thought that issues such as this – the ones I so desperately wish to see eliminated – are the ones on which I’ve built a platform and a career. The frequency with which I experience and write about ableism has become a twisted form of job security, because deep down I know I will never run out of stories to share. And yet, what I would give for an end to the writing fodder, as it would mean a world finally without encountering discrimination.
I am tired of the days when simple moments of enjoying life are shattered by someone else’s lack of understanding and acceptance. I am a tireless activist, but I am still tired.
I kept the ring that I picked from the second shop on my finger as I wrote this. It now has a place as one of the most bittersweet pieces in my collection, but I treasure it. I will wear it with joy not only because it is a reminder to keep up the fight even when I feel defeated, but also because of the other memories it holds: eating raspberries straight from the bush in my family’s backyard, the hazy mountain view surrounding us, twirling around the dance floor with my dad at my cousin’s wedding, peering out of a tram with my family as it reached 10,378 feet, and – most beautiful of all – being with people I love, who love me, and who welcome and accept me as I am.