Sorry for the Sorry’s.

Empty blue wheelchairs in a row.

Maybe it’s because I’m British, maybe it’s because in real life I’m an awkward introvert, or maybe it’s Maybelline; whatever the cause, I have a severe case of apologitis. I’ve apologised for handing in work close to but still before a deadline. I’ve apologised for not answering the phone whilst in a meeting. I’ve even apologised for apologising. Despite making such frequent use of the word “sorry”, I do sometimes find myself wondering why on Earth I’m saying it at all.

A few days ago I was working in the office. Our office is on one of the top floors of a large building, so naturally I need to use a lift to get in and out of the building. At the end of the day I packed my bag, threw on my jacket, and headed towards the nearest elevator. The lift arrived empty and so I was able to turn around once the doors had closed behind me, so that I was facing the doors and wouldn’t need to reverse out. I watched the numbers on the dial get smaller as I descended, and noticed that we were stopping before my destination. The doors opened to reveal a workman with a large trolley waiting for the lift; no amount of wheelchair Tetris would allow us to both be in the lift at the same time. The workman said he was happy to wait, but as the doors closed I found myself apologising. For the rest of my journey home, that interaction played over and over again in my mind. Why had I apologised?

Any reasonable person could easily deduce that I depend on lift access to get in and out of the building, and even if I wasn’t visibly disabled, lifts usually work on a first come, first serve basis. It was not my fault that the lift was so small that it couldn’t fit both a wheelchair and a trolley, and the workman had said he was happy to wait. I was clearly not at fault and had no reason to apologise, but I did it anyway.

As I pondered this incident, I also recalled many other occasions where I had apologised for using facilities like accessible bathrooms and changing rooms, because someone needed to fetch a ramp for me, or even just because the wheelchair takes up more floorspace than someone stood up. I have essentially been apologising for my existence ever since I started using a wheelchair a decade ago, and that made me feel both sad and a little bit angry. While undoubtedly my obsession with apologising is partially due to my personality type, I don’t recall feeling the need to constantly say sorry prior to being disabled, which means that there is some kind of an unspoken expectation that disabled people should apologise for their needs mildly inconveniencing others.

No one should ever feel the need to apologise for taking up their own space and meeting their needs. It doesn’t matter if that need is related to a disability, or is to accommodate a religious practice, or is just to show someone common decency; there is no reason to be sorry for any of those things. That doesn’t mean we should be ungrateful, or never apologise even when we do get something wrong. What it does mean is that people cannot exploit our vulnerabilities in the same way, even if they criticise the perceived assertiveness of not apologising for our very existence.

It’s going to be difficult to break this habit, but I’m going to try to stop saying sorry so often, especially when it comes to accessibility. Where social rules call for some kind of verbal response, I want to replace “sorry” with “thank you”, so instead of “sorry you had to fetch a ramp” I would say “thank you for fetching the ramp”. Since there’s no time like the present I’ll start now; I won’t apologise for making you read 650 words all about apologies, and instead I’ll thank you for taking time out of your day to read my little musings instead. Thank you.

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