Inclusion – What it Means to Me
Eleven years ago, Feb 6 fell on a Friday. That’s the day of the accident that left me permanently disabled. Every day I get up and hobble to the bathroom making sure to put my foot all the way down so I don’t trip or fall. Sometimes if I am really stiff, I run my fingers along the walls and furniture to keep me balanced. My ankle muscles don’t work due to the nerve damage.
I think about how I walk every day. I worry I might fall down the stairs, get knocked over by a dog, slip on the sidewalk, fall when getting out of my car or have my knee give way when I workout. I sit next to the window on the left side of the plane so I won’t get bumped. I like to walk downstairs holding the railing. Sometimes I grab your arm if you’re near me and the terrain is uneven or slick. When I get dressed I put my AFO (ankle-foot orthosis or brace) in my boot or shoe. I open and close the Velcro that attaches it to my leg. I no longer hear the noise as the Velcro releases to open.
I walk all day and most people don’t notice I have a disability. They assume since I am walking without a limp that I am ‘normal’. And I am grateful to all the doctors, trainers, massage therapists, my acupuncturist and chiropractor that help me stay strong. They help me walk as evenly as possible to protect my hip and other joints from uneven wear and tear and that keeps me moving. Having this accident and handicap changed my life. I am grateful for the opportunities and new friends I have made as a result of Parafencing and a common injury – it’s called ‘foot drop. My knee is rebuilt. However, the nerve was damaged beyond repair.
My message today on my knee-a-versary is to be mindful that many people struggle each day with hidden disabilities. They push themselves to get up, go to work, and go about their daily business. It could be chronic fatigue, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, eyesight or hearing issues, joint pain or cartilage degeneration, cancer treatment effects, depression or any other hidden disease or injury that is working against them. Don’t assume everyone is perfect. Don’t assume others don’t struggle. Don’t get mad when you see someone you think is able-bodied parking in a handicap spot. If they’ve got a tag and are using it, they most likely need it. The tags are hard to get. I don’t have one since I walk mostly pain-free and walking helps me stay limber and keep moving.
May I offer some suggestions for anyone who finds themselves judging someone who parks in a handicap space?
First – Possibility-thinking. ask yourself what three circumstances could you envision about that person that would make parking in the handicap spot okay. e.g. they just got their cast off after having a terrible skiing accident and they are just starting to walk again without crutches or a walker. Or, they have chronic fatigue and just getting into their car zapped most of their reserved energy for the day. Getting into the store is a major accomplishment for them. Or, they are getting out of the car and will be walking around to the other side to support their aging mother who wants to buy a gift for her granddaughter and doesn’t have the strength to walk more than 100 feet at a time.
Second – Personal gratitude. “I am so grateful for my legs and my lungs because they enable me to get to where I want to go and I can walk unencumbered through the parking lot. It’s nice to know there is a spot there if I should need it. I am so grateful that my body works well and live each day pain free and physically and mentally capable of meeting life’s challenges.”
Third – Abundance. “Wow, aren’t we lucky to live in a country that has laws to help those that are struggling physically each day. We have big roads, big parking lots and lots of space so we can have handicap spots for those in need. It must be really hard for those that face challenges in places where there are no laws or regulations to help them participate outside their homes. I don’t mind walking a few extra steps to ensure it’s easier on others.”
I have spent a lot of time overseas with my friends in wheelchairs. I have been in restaurants where the bathroom is down 14 steps and there is no way for someone to wash their hands or use the facilities after rolling themselves along on dirty streets to find a place to eat. I have been in museums and public places where we’ve had to carry our friends on our backs so they can see things. I have begged total strangers to help me lift my friends up steps to get into laundromats, stores, and hotels. I have pushed my friends because there are plush carpets in entryways or walkways that make it impossible for them to wheel themselves because the chair’s wheels sink into the carpet instead of gliding across the floor. I have one friend who hit a threshold that was too high and it threw her out of her chair and she ended up having to have surgery to repair the bone and install a rod in her leg.
Think about our public spaces. Wipe up spills. Pick up garbage. Point out hazards and tell building services so they can fix them. Design spaces and events thinking about those who don’t have what you have. I have a friend who struggles with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Trying to open a heavy glass door to get into work is a daily struggle. She’s reliant on the automatic doors to ensure she doesn’t burn all her energy for the day on opening the door.
Imagine not being able to do things for yourself and having to ask for assistance to do simple things. It’s tiresome, embarrassing and unnecessary in most cases. We can all do more to ensure our colleagues, friends, and strangers feel included in daily life.
Open doors for everyone if you can. Ask how you can help and let us tell you how or gracefully let you know we’ve got it. Lots of time we like to do things ourselves as it helps us maintain our independence. Think ahead if you’re planning an event and someone in a wheelchair or with chronic pain needs to be seated the entire time. Think about how the hearing impaired might hear and how the sightless or vision impaired may participate. for all meetings, publish an agenda ahead of time and plan and stick to the breaks. There are folks that are using your agenda to plan their medication, finger sticks, breast-milk pumping, eating to keep their sugars in check and other activities they may not want to share with all attendees. Please plan for those of us who are doing our best to show up and be included and participate.
Be mindful. Be kind. Be curious. Be inclusive. We are different like you. We happen to have an extra life story or two. Mine starts with a soccer game eleven years ago today.