Watching Shawna Daigle roll up to our table, I looked from her to the chair in the place she was supposed to sit and panicked.
I wasn't sure if I should stand up and move the chair to make room for her wheelchair, if she could move the chair, or if I should just scoot mine over to make room. I settled with asking her if I should move the chair.
She said no.
It was later, when she was giving a speech on how to act around those with physical disabilities, that I started to blush. The Fountain Valley resident told the audience about a handful of the hundreds of incidents where people have tried to help her and she didn't need, or want, it.
She was talking about me, I was sure. It was self-centered, I know, but when she rolled up for our interview, I panicked. Not knowing what is appropriate made me uncomfortable, so I fumbled.
It is for people like me that Daigle wants to become a public speaker. The 42-year-old is trying to take away the guessing game of what to do when a physically disabled person appears to be struggling, and when and how it is acceptable to offer assistance.
Daigle spoke about the frustration she feels when people try to help her, telling the audience about the time someone ran across a grocery store parking lot to assist her.
Or when a woman offered to help her get into her car when she was capable of doing it solo. Daigle declined, but the woman proceeded to assist her anyways, whacking her in the jaw in the process.
"What part of 'no' don't you understand?" she yelled, shaking her head and arms in frustration during her speech.
The frustration came back when she wanted the peach-mango salsa on the top shelf of the grocery store, and no one was around to help.
"I want to be free like you, but I need help," she said. "Whenever you see someone with a disability, or in general struggling, stop and ask them to help."
Daigle spoke to more than 35 people July 14 at a Toastmasters International's Speakers Bureau, an advanced meeting for those pursuing professional speaking careers, said Jack Nichols, a professional speaker and founder of the Speakers Bureau.
The bureau helps advanced speakers improve and get to the professional level while qualifying speakers to represent Toastmasters, he said. The organization regularly gets requests for speakers and recommends those from the Speakers Bureau who have been qualified, he said.
Daigle didn't qualify Wednesday, but she did well, Nichols said.
"She'll be invited to come back and do it again and again until she passes, because she has a good story," he said.
The speech was the first step for Daigle's dream to become a public speaker and educate others about how to act around people with physical disabilities — an obstacle she's dealt with her entire life.
"This is what I'm called to do," she said.
Daigle was 7 months old when the accident that put her in a wheelchair happened.
She had just started walking, and her parents decided to go to the store on an August afternoon in 1968. Tucked in her car seat, Daigle was in the best shape out of the three of them when a drunk driver made a U-turn on the Santa Ana Freeway and hit the family's car head-on, she said.
Daigle was taken to the hospital, just for observation, when doctors noticed she wasn't moving the lower half of her body. Subsequent tests led doctors to declare Daigle would be "shriveled like a vegetable and worthless to society," she said.
"But last time I checked, I'm not a vegetable and I'm definitely not worthless to society," she said.
The incident left Daigle in a wheelchair, and although she resisted telling her story for a long time, she now wants to share it and use her experiences to educate and help others avoid the frustrating situations she has gone through.
"I don't want to be another motivational speaker like every handicapped person is. I want to be unique," she said. "Yeah, I can tell my story, but I can educate as well."
Daigle is taking acting classes and is involved in two Toastmasters groups along with the Speakers Bureau. She wants to become a qualified speaker and then work up to an accredited speaker, the highest level offered, but it's going to take time.
"It's all a matter of baby steps," she said before her speech. "This is the first step tonight."