By Mark E. Smith
Within one week, I received two flat tires on my wheelchair during my morning treks by sidewalk to work. Wanting to know where I was suddenly getting flat tires in the morning, I traced my route, discovering that a home that I passed by each morning had recently underwent renovation, and the sidewalk in front of it remained littered with nails and staples. I immediately avoided that part of my route, resulting in no more flat tires.
A few weeks passed, and while distracted by thoughts of my busy day ahead, on the way to work I fell back onto my old sidewalk route, and mistakenly rolled right in front of that recently-renovated house – and, by the time I got to work, I had yet another flat tire.
I’ve since avoided that house most days, but because it’s on the route I’ve taken for years, I’ll occasionally catch myself heading toward it. However, when I’m on my game, paying attention, I’m aware to change my course, avoiding that house – and flat tires.
Disability experience – which is truly rooted in human experience – is a tricky course, as well. And, if we’re going to succeed at living with disability, it takes exceptional tenacity, discipline, and perseverance – we must pay attention to where we’re heading. After all, with social stigmas remaining, and social-economic realities that place us at statistical disadvantages ranging from education to employment to relationships, we must play our A-game in order to compete with the mainstream.
However, what succeeding at disability experience – make that, human experience – doesn’t require is perfection. And, the sooner we realize that, the faster we can get on our courses to success.
When it comes to how others generally view us as those with disabilities, we fall into two stereotyped camps: Helpless or super-human. If you merely consider news stories regarding those with disabilities, they’re truly at the two extremes, rarely in the middle, where we’re either portrayed as helpless victims or inspiring heroes. And, in many ways, being seen as inspiring heroes – not just in the media, but in our families, workplaces, and communities – is a flattering but daunting image to live up to. Yet, we can live up to it – that is, as long as we acknowledge within ourselves that we’re not perfect, that we occasionally stray off course, as everyone does; but, we’re just as capable to get right back on track, regaining healthy perspectives, and living to our fullest potentials when we strive and pay attention. In plain terms, we may get flat tires from time to time, but when we’re aware, we can very effectively strive to avoid them as we move forward.
No one can deny that disability experience is extremely complex, even for those who have mastered it. As I experience in my own life, the range of daily emotions can be vast, from feeling in complete command of my profession at work to feeling demeaned on some level by a stranger in the world at large who may write me off as inept upon mere sight of my wheelchair. Sure, I’ve learned to live with a heightened awareness, understanding, and patience – I don’t personally flip-out when I encounter circumstances involving ignorance. However, I’m not perfect, and I’m still effected by the emotions of living with disability like everyone else – that is, I remain vulnerable to the diverse effects of human experience, even insecurities. I can find myself having bad moments directly or indirectly relating to disability – where vulnerabilities and insecurities creep up – temporarily deflating me like a flat tire on my wheelchair. And, it’s normal for everyone to experience moments of frustration, weakness, vulnerability, insecurity, or a myriad of other emotions as we go through life, disability or not.
During these moments, we can likewise make regretful mistakes, from lashing out at a person who simply offers to open a door, offended that someone has inadvertently acknowledged our disability, to resenting able-bodied siblings whose lives on two legs appear perfect – all based on our vulnerabilities and insecurities relating to disability experience. In fact, in my own life, I know that as secure and outgoing as I am, a few drinks in me on a Saturday night at a social event cancels out my cerebral palsy, makes me ten years younger, and magically gives me the eloquence of James Bond – at least in my one-too-many-drinks mind. Yet, as fun as such let-loose nights could be, I recognize that some of my behavior in these situations in the past has been based on my own vulnerabilities and insecurities as one with a disability, and as a man, in general – that is, “a drink” squelched some of my own social insecurities. In this way, I understand that I’m not perfect as one with a disability or as a man – vulnerabilities and insecurities find their way to the surface from time to time. Yet, what I’ve come to recognize is a far more valuable lesson: I need to consistently strive to be truer to my potential in such moments, and I need to remind myself that while I have vulnerabilities and insecurities, I can also control them, and harness them to hopefully become a better person, more adept at living as a whole, disability and beyond. I don’t need a drink to charm the pants off of a crowd – I just need to muster the courage to acknowledge my insecurities, and then apply the willpower needed to push forward regardless of them. One might say that when it comes to living with disability, and as a person of true character, it’s an ongoing process of learning to recognize and avoid the areas in our lives that can cause flat tires.
A friend of mine, with a life-long disability, has worked since he graduated college at 22, maintaining an amazing work ethic of 12- to 14-hour days. Now approaching 50, his body isn’t as forgiving as it once was – his condition has wracked his skeletal system to where, by the end of the work day, he’s in tremendous pain, unable to really enjoy his home life.
My friend’s family has suggested that he slow down, cut back his hours at work, or maybe even retire. But, my friend won’t hear of it, he won’t admit any vulnerability – he’s overcome every other challenge in his life, and he won’t give into this one.
However, the real notion that he won’t give into is that he’s human, with vulnerabilities and insecurities just like the rest of us. “You’re super. And you’re human. But, you’re not super-human,” I told him. “None of us are. So, get real about your vulnerabilities, including relating to your health, and address them responsibly. If that means dialing back your career for the sake of your health and family, it’s the honest move to make.”
As one with a disability striving toward success, you’re going to find yourself in vulnerable, insecure moments, where you may feel defeated or regretful. And, it’s normal. However, the key is to not allow these moments to derail you in the long-term, but to acknowledge the situation and emotions, and move forward in positive directions as one who’s not perfect, but is trying to live up to your sincerest potentials:
Mark, I’m nervous and scared about this job interview – how are they going to react to my using a wheelchair? You’re right to be scared and nervous, just like every other candidate, and you have disability on top of it. However, remember, you’ve gotten through other job interviews before, and your resume’ and education are impressive. Acknowledge your anxieties, remind yourself that they’re normal, and move through the interview with increasing comfort as you go.
Mark, I want to ask this special someone out on a date, but I’m too scared about my whole being-in-a-wheelchair thing…. Fear of rejection is among the most common insecurities everyone has – and it prevents many people from asking others on dates, regardless of disability. Recognize that your apprehension is normal – the person you wish to ask out has likely experienced, too! – then be bold and ask the person out. If you get turned down, it’s no big deal – we’ve all been there. But, you’ll never get a date unless you acknowledge any fear of rejection, and move forward despite it.
Mark, I feel so awkward at events as the only one with a disability, so I have a few drinks to break the ice, but end up drunk and stupid…. Again, almost everyone feels awkward and uncomfortable in such social situations. We’re by nature social creatures, and want to fit in, so a foremost fear is feeling like an outsider in a crowd – and disability can magnify that experience, where we can perceive ourselves as “sticking out” even more. It’s natural to feel awkward and out of place, but it’s certainly not normal to drink to excess. And, what I’ve learned is that if I can fit in after a few drinks, I can fit in even better totally sober, with my wit and personality in full clarity – and the same holds true for you. When you roll in the door, know that you’re not the only one nervous about being there, and move forward with a confident smile. Then, you’ll find that others will gravitate toward you, turning your self-acknowledged insecurities into an asset.
My point is, we all have vulnerabilities and insecurities – which disability can magnify – but they’re really just universal to human experience. However, when we’re honest with ourselves and admit them, then we can address them in healthy ways, moving forward with a self-candor that empowers our lives.
No, we’re not perfect – we all have vulnerabilities and insecurities. Yet, let us not forget that even when our vulnerabilities and insecurities creep up on us – sometimes resulting in frustrations, regrets, and mistakes – we still are capable of striving toward our fullest potential by addressing our natural, understandable emotions in healthy ways. I say that while none of us can live perfectly, each of us surely can strive to live capably.