I have been in a wheelchair for three years and six months. Long enough to feel the weight of it but short enough to know I still have a lot to learn about living with a disability.
After my accident in 2012, when I fell from my trapeze while training and fractured my spine, my disability became a part of my story—a part of what makes me different. And I try not to shy away from the differences in people. My father is from India and my mom is from Ireland, so half of my family is brown. I am proud of that. I love the differences in all of us, because that is what makes each of us so unique and interesting. But my disability is only part of my story, not all of it. And certainly not the thing I want you to focus on.
I became Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota 2015 in March of last year, and I see this title as a way to educate and advocate for the rights of the disabled, in whatever small (or large) ways I can. As disabled women we are all so different. Some of us have had our disabilities from birth, some of us are newer to the game, some of us are in chairs, while others have walkers, sight dogs, canes, etc. There are so many colors to what we are and to how our disabilities present. We are also mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. We are actors, doctors, writers, nurses, teachers, dancers, lawyers … the list goes on. We are you. And that is how I want you to see me, when you see me.
I have no illusions about being seen as disabled, so I’m not asking that you deny the obvious. But I hope you can see me as more than my disability. And so I will gladly pass on what I’ve learned these past three years and six months, with love and with hope.
1. I am still a whole woman. I am a strong, creative, capable, powerful, sexy woman. Just because my legs don’t move like yours do doesn’t mean I’m half a person. I’m not a freak, a charity case, or someone to take a wide berth around on the sidewalk. When you meet me, try not to talk to me as if I’m a child or don’t have all my faculties about me. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s ok. I’m with you; just fake it till you make it.
2. If I need help, I’ll ask for it. When you see me in the grocery store, perusing the aisles, or even rolling and sweating up a hill, don’t offer to help me. If I need help, I will ask for it. I’ve become really good at it, and it makes me feel empowered to work hard again like I used to. If you would open the door for someone else, open it for me too because you’re being polite. If it looks like I’m REALLY struggling (like stuck in the snow), you can ask and I’ll let you know. Otherwise assume I’ve got it handled because I’m a whole woman and I know what I’m doing. Of course, there was that one time I fell out of my chair onto the street in front of a security guard while he stood there staring at me and did nothing. That’s would have been a good time to help! A guy ran across the street, picked me up, and put me back in my chair while the guard was still staring at me. Thank goddess somebody knew what to do!
3. When I have to go to the bathroom, I really have to go. And since being paralyzed means no bladder or bowel control, it’s up to me to control it. I have to know that I can get to a bathroom every few hours. My life is, quite literally, planned out by that. When I go out I have to make sure where I go is accessible and that I can get into a bathroom, which isn’t always the case. DON’T EVER USE THE STALL FOR DISABLED PEOPLE IN AN AIRPORT BATHROOM!!! I mean it. In other places, when the other stalls are in use, I understand. But if you have a choice, don’t go in the one for disabled people. You know why? Because you have a choice. And many of us can’t hold it. There, I’ve said it. Believe me, before I was disabled I had no idea, so I used that stall for the disabled all the time. Now I’m giving you the benefit of my newfound knowledge.
4. My life is not a tragedy or an inspiration. Though it is difficult at times, and I’m still processing the loss of my walking self, I don’t see my life as a tragedy and would love it if, even if you did, you didn’t reveal that to me. By the same token, try not to be “inspired” by the small day-to-day things I do. I do all kinds of small things and big things on a daily basis. Be inspired if I do something huge!
5. When I’m advocating for the disabled, I’m also advocating for you. There is a good chance you will be disabled someday, whether it’s temporary because of an accident or permanent because of illness or age. Look to your parents and/or grandparents and you may see what I’m talking about. If I can’t negotiate a sidewalk, get up a curb cut, cross a street, or get into a restaurant or watch a movie with my friends, you or your elders may not be able to either. So help us advocate.
P.S. Do not park in the handicapped spot ever.
Even for a minute.
Even if you just have to run into the store to grab something and will be right out.
Even if you’re sure no one else is around.
Even if you’re just waiting for someone who will be right out.
Even if you’re a police officer.
Even if you’re a postal worker.
Even if you don’t care.
Because you really do have a choice, and you can easily get where you need to go.
And if we’re behind you and you’ve taken that spot, we’ll turn you in.
Photos by Reagan Williams Photography