Three years ago, I had a serious car accident, broke my neck at the C6/C7 level, and became a quadriplegic wheelchair user. I’m able to use my arms, but my fingers don’t work well and I have very little grip. These are two real-life scenarios that have happened to me in the last year.
Scene: The waiting room of the counselor my son sees:
1) I was waiting for my son to be done when a mom and little girl, probably about 5 years old, came in. When my kiddo did come out, I started to wheel past the two of them and the girl, looking at me curiously, said, “Why are you in a wheelchair?”
Before I could say anything, the mom turned beet red and grabbed the little girl saying, “Don’t ask things like that!” Then to me, hardly meeting my eyes, she said “I’m so sorry!” I tried to assure her I didn’t mind, but she was obviously grossly ashamed.
2) On another occasion, I was waiting for my son to be done when another mom and little girl came in. The girl looked curiously for a moment then said, “Why are you in a wheelchair?”
Me: “Well, I was in a car accident and my neck was broken. The brain sends all its messages to your body parts through your neck and back, so when that gets hurt, your body can’t do what your brain wants it to. My legs can’t tell that my brain wants them to move, so I can’t walk.”
Her: “Oh! Your hands neither?”
Me: “Yep, my fingers only get some of the messages my brain sends, so they can only move a little.”
My son came out, so I needed to turn and make his next appointment; also, I should mention, this child is knee-high to a grasshopper.
Her: “I’m gonna help!” She started systematically pulling my chair around and pulling me toward the desk while her mom and I laughed.
Her mom: “In high school, I dated a guy with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair. I used to ride on his lap and we’d fly down the halls!”
Now, which of these two little girls do you think will be more comfortable with, and therefore inclusive of, people with disabilities when she gets older? Which will be more informed? Which will look at people like me with a smile and which will glance uncomfortably away, making me feel invisible? Which will recognize me as a productive member of society, and which will see me only as broken?
In honor of spinal cord injury awareness, I want to beg you to normalize disability for your children. We’re just people, and those of us who are fortunate enough are still living our lives as “normally” as we can. There is nothing inherently amazing about us, nor is there anything inherently pitiful about us; it’s equally as frustrating to me to be applauded for “managing” to live from my chair as it is to be pitied because I have to.
One of the best experiences I’ve had in public happened at Central Market in Dallas. I was waiting for my husband to come out of the restroom and a mom walked in with a teenage boy who had Down syndrome. He pointed at me and said, “Mom, look!” She glanced at me, smiled, and said, “Yep. She uses a wheelchair to get around. Some people need them. Cool, huh?” and they continued on their way. As if I were totally normal, totally routine. Just a person who happens to roll instead of walk.
I’m one wheelchair user; I can only speak for myself. But for myself, I ask you to let your children come to me. Let them, even encourage them to, ask questions. I’ll give them a ride on my lap, show them how I can spin or pop a wheelie, and show them the gnarly scar on the back of my neck. I’ll tell them how I do things differently than they do while showing them that though we’re different, we’re still essentially the same.