Today I read an article that hit me close to home. Give it a read, then come back here because I have a few things to add!
For over a year now, I've been avoiding wheelchairs at all costs. In fact, when given the choice, I've opted for crawling around my house. With five young kids I am not allowed to say "stupid" at my house, but I have been known to boldly declare that mine is the "STUPID wheelchair."
Yes, wheelchairs are difficult to use when you don't have hands. That was my first excuse. Yes, my house (with its differing floor surfaces and obstacle course of toys and book bags) is a difficult one to traverse in a wheelchair. Excuse number two.
But, when I'm honest, I admit that I have an aversion to the wheelchair because of what it symbolizes. To me, a wheelchair says that I am handicapped. It tells me I am dis-abled and can't walk. There is always a fear that, once I depend on a "STUPID wheelchair," I will always depend on a "STUPID wheelchair."
Being in a wheelchair makes me highly dependent on other people. Believe me when I tell you that this is a vulnerable place in which to live. In an overwhelming way, wheelchairs mean that I am less than other people, or more significantly, less than my old self, who could not only walk but run, far and fast.
This past summer was full of surgeries that have kept me off my feet for weeks at a time. Since I've stubbornly refused to use a wheelchair, I've been limited to my bed, couch, or knees. I've crawled across that hardwood kitchen floor so many times that my knees are torn up and too sore to crawl on any longer.
So (and this is a rare occurrence), I've given in. The "STUPID wheelchair" won, and I've taken the ride.This short stint in a wheelchair has actually taught me a lot about what people in wheelchairs have to deal with every day. It has helped me appreciate many of the small advantages I have as an amputee who walks, as well as some big ones.
A few weeks ago, my daughter completed some academic testing with an educational psychologist. The next step was a follow-up appointment that included the parents and was scheduled for the week after my most recent surgery. But, because I am in a wheelchair, my husband Brook and I had to cancel. You see, the psychologist's office is on the second floor of a beautiful, old, brick office building. With no elevator.
We were hugely disappointed. When I called to cancel, the doctor was very understanding and quick to accommodate us. She called a colleague and arranged to use her nearby office that is handicap-accessible the following week.
That relatively-speaking very small inconvenience raised a lot of questions for me though:
- What if this appointment had been more dire or time-sensitive?
- What if my wheelchair was permanent?
- Would I then be forced to search for doctors in handicap-accessible buildings? Would my comings and goings ALL be limited by elevator access?
- Would I have to choose restaurants, and shops, and hairstylists, and everything based on accessibility?
- Should I be fearful of going in to tall buildings - what if there were a fire?
- Could I get down the stairs? Is there someone with me who could (or would) carry me down?
I don't write this with political aspirations or as a complaint. Rather, I want to raise attention to this issue because I never would have thought about it either!
Before my limb loss, I never would have thought about limiting my water intake so that I wouldn't have to use the bathroom during an outing. I would never have considered that my friends and family would need the direction and ability to assemble and dissemble my wheelchair if we were going anywhere. Not once had I chosen a restaurant for its wide aisles between the tables. (But I also wouldn't have expected my daughter to have this much fun riding in my lap or pushing so many elevator buttons.)
Let's stop to consider all the things that come easily to those of us that don't normally need a wheelchair. Or any other accommodations for that matter, be they physical or psychological.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting at Classica Homes, the local home builder that remodeled my downstairs bathroom to make it handicap-accessible. An important and loyal client, this company is also family to my dad. When they heard of my illness, they jumped to our aid and offered to accommodate my house at no charge. Amazing, right?
So yesterday I was a guest at their company-wide quarterly meeting - to officially meet the people who helped me in such a grand way, to tell the story of my recovery, and to publicly thank them for all they have done. I had envisioned myself striding into that meeting and standing up professionally to speak. I just wanted to make my dad proud. Unfortunately, I had to be wheeled in; and I had to remain seated the whole time. Let me tell you, it was a new and challenging experience to meet someone in a respectful, professional manner without standing!
In our culture, meeting someone new involves standing up and shaking hands. It creates an awkward space when I am unable to do either one.
Several months ago, I had given some thought to the hand-shaking challenge - Should I risk breaking someone's fingers with my powerful, robotic, prosthetic grasp? Probably not. Should I just nod my head? Should I hug instead? I finally settled on holding my hand out and allowing the new friend the opportunity to grasp my prosthetic fingers. Seems to work ok for now...
But now there is this (new) challenge of staying seated to greet someone new. And I can't think of a solution to that one. But I will say this: once I am back on my (prosthetic) feet, I am surely going to bend or squat down to eye-level to meet or greet anyone in a wheelchair.
Listen to how my brilliant and tactful father made my situation smooth and comfortable. His job at the meeting was to introduce me before I spoke in front of the larger group. Instead of moving to the front of the room and standing to address the group, he remained seated for his introduction. (Luckily, the room was set up as a round table discussion, so this worked.)
Just that small, subtle tactic did an incredible thing: it normalized that I'd be sitting during my talk! How beautiful! I didn't feel one bit awkward after that, and my talk went incredibly smoothly. Thank you, Dad.
I only hope we can all normalize disabilities and help people of all sorts feel comfortable and confident. Because we all have disabilities, some visible and some in-visible. Let's celebrate our strengths and our weaknesses - they are what make us human after all.