This July, I celebrate interdependence

Erin Hawley outside on a sunny day

Erin Hawley

It all started with an allergic reaction. I’m sensitive when it comes to fragrances, especially in candles, and this clothing store reeked of floral bouquet. Snot clogged up my sinuses in record speed as I was waiting in line. I left mom at the register and fled to an adjacent shop.

I drove around the sale racks relishing in the fact that I was — for once — on my own. And able to breathe.

My disability prevents me from ever being alone, though. I require a caretaker within earshot to suction my tracheotomy and reposition me in the wheelchair as needed. Anytime someone can’t hear me when I call them, anxiety takes over. This means I rarely explore public places without tag-alongs.

But that day, I could reach mom if needed. The store was crowded, and that calmed any sense of isolation bubbling up — there was always someone nearby who could hear me.

An employee in the thankfully-odorless fashion store asked if I was looking for anything. “A skirt!” was the first thought that popped into my brain and awkwardly tumbled out. Not sure why I said that, but really — is there any time you don’t need a skirt?

My motto in life is “what would Mariah Carey do“ if she had the budget of an SSI recipient. In my experience, it’s rare that strangers transcend preconceived notions of how I get around in the world and what it means to have a disability, but this employee immediately dove into the clearance rack next to us and started pulling out and parading designs in my size.

This was an uncommon interaction. I’m used to people either ignoring my presence completely, or treating me like a child. But this felt as if we were friends on a shopping spree. She noticed my disability (how could you not) and treated me like a person — imagine that!

Her next selection was a black and tan miniskirt. I pictured the different ways I could wear it — with lace tights, black leggings, or by itself for a subdued, casual look.

This ensemble would make me feel super sexy , which, in a way, is my number one goal in life. By showing some skin, I can reclaim my sexuality and let others know I am not ashamed of how I look. So I spent $6 on an amazing skirt that is still my favorite to this day.

Mariah would approve.

In that moment, I also realized that a stranger helped me and I felt good about it. I once thought independence was the path to happiness but have learned that total independence is an impossible goal — for anyone. We all need help and services to live. So there I was at that store, depending completely on someone else, yet experiencing a sense of freedom. To feel that way all the time must be heaven.

The interaction at this store was one fleeting example of interdependence transforming lives of people with disabilities. If we look through this lens of communal support, we can restructure and build networks that allow everyone to live as equal citizens. Access to clothes is one of those things we can’t do alone. Stores should train their employees to be as great as the woman I met that day, because fashion is for everyone.

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