By Victor Santiago Pineda from Venezuela

I see wonder in Tony's eyes while he points and says, "Wow Mama, look, look over there. That boy is riding in that car!" It is as though he sees a space ship! Filled with curiosity and hesitation, Tony slowly approaches me. He stands directly in front of me and yells over to ask my father my name.

I startle him when I answer him in Spanish, "My name is Victor!" At the age of seven, I noticed a vast difference between the interaction of the general public of developed and underdeveloped societies toward disabled individuals. Disability is experienced differently and depends on the exposure and interaction between the disabled individuals and the public.

Fully accessible California public schools made me feel no different from any of the other Students. Children at my school did not gawk at me nor did they bombard me with questions about my condition like they did in India or Venezuela. Analogous to Robby's red hair and freckles, California kids simply saw the wheelchair as it part of me. They recognized the chair from past experience and moved on to the next topic. It has been my experience that children who have been exposed to wheelchairs and disabilities tend to have no hesitation or major discomfort when interacting with disabled children. Only in highly developed societies is there a fully accessible infrastructure where disabled people are fully able to participate and contribute to the greater society.

Outside the US, seeing a disabled person in a wheelchair generates bewilderment. Seeing an "unable" person shopping, taking a walk, or going to the movies astounds people. The idea that disabled people have a contributing role in society is virtually non-existent outside of the First World. Not only is a wheelchair a "modern" or "unusual" machine, it is a strongly representative symbol of bondage and imprisonment. In France, my chair was not seen as a tool for liberation and freedom, it was seen as the only factor impeding my independence. In Syria, I was approached by a woman who felt a religious obligation to pray for me. The Middle Easterners acted as though it was their duty to aid me in any way they could. Generally, the response I get is pity.

The overwhelming majority of the world tends to view disabilities in a traditional setting. In Japan, it is a shame for a family to have a disabled child, a result of a parent's dishonorable activities. In Hindu culture, past-life bad karma can reincarnate you to be disabled. Hitler's Germany rubbed out individuals for being "imperfect." It is also common in Russia, Cuba, and the US to abort an "imperfect" baby. A disabled child cannot receive schooling in most of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa or South America.

Society is not willing to accept the full dignity and abilities of disabled individuals. Their potential is diminished because of physical, not mental restraints.

First, access to medical care and equipment is essential in aiding independence. Second, the area is not adapted or accessible to wheelchairs for achieving independence. Disabled people outside the US have two choices: they could live at home or in an institution. Disabled people have no place in society.

On a recent trip to Venezuela, I noticed people were cautiously curious of my disability and my wheelchair just because they had never seen one. It became my job to make them feel comfortable.

I spoke to a young Venezuelan boy, Tony, and told him my name. It shocked him that I can speak. After moving his eyes across the shiny metal of the chair, he asks me, "Why are you sick?"

I respond, "I am not sick, I just can't walk. I have weak muscles." Then I asked him to show me his muscles. He flexed his little biceps with pride; he wants to prove his strength by pushing my wheelchair up hill to the house.

He felt at ease when he noticed that I was more like him than I was different. With his curiosity fulfilled, we became friends. He was seven and had not yet formulated stereotypes.

Familiarity is the answer. In Berkeley, people will not stop what they are doing on Sproul Plaza to watch me roll by. Rick Starr won't stop singing; the protestors will not stop protesting. Disability is experienced differently corresponding to the exposure and interaction that a culture or people have had with disabled individuals. We can only expect a change in the world by educating the public and breaking stereotypes.