Experiencing the World from Another Perspective
My Time Spent in a Wheelchair
I once thought I had an awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by disabled people. However, when I became temporarily disabled myself, I realized that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (or, in this case, riding in their wheelchair) instills a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for the difficulties many people face every day.
One weekend during the fall of my first year in high school, I was riding my bike on the Virginia Creeper Trail, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Riding at the rear of a large pack of bikers, I could not see the path ahead and hit a pole in the middle of the trail, which sent me flying in one direction and my bike in another.
We were far enough away from the nearest town that an ambulance had to come up the mountain to take me to the hospital. I was strapped to a backboard for the ambulance ride because of the possibility of spinal injuries. After getting several x-rays, I was informed that I had broken my left arm and my left leg. At first I was somewhat relieved: no spinal injuries were found, and since I am right-handed, I would still be able to write. However, I soon found out that having a broken arm and leg on the same side meant that I would be unable to use crutches, and would be forced to use a wheelchair until I could walk again.
Using a wheelchair gave me the unexpected opportunity to experience some of the difficulties encountered by people who spend their whole lives in a wheelchair. Physical barriers were everywhere and life was no longer easy and comfortable. Simple tasks like going up the stairs or taking a shower became major ordeals. I needed to rely on the assistance of family and friends just to get around. Other muscles were strengthened to compensate for the ones I could not use.
The daily physical challenges were not as formidable as the emotional and psychological obstacles I had to face. It took some time to become adjusted to the stares and whispered comments from others. Even more difficult was dealing with the patronizing attitudes of those who wanted to “help” me or those who assumed that mental disabilities automatically accompany physical disabilities. I had to learn to accept the suggestions of others graciously, even when I felt I had a more complete understanding of the situation since I was experiencing the difficulties.
I was fortunate in being confined to a wheelchair only temporarily and eventually returned to being “normal,” but this experience sensitized me to the challenges that face disabled people, not the least of which are the prejudices and perceptions of others. My concept of what it means to be a good person has broadened to include greater courtesy, concern and respect for those who face life every day with the hardships that come with a disability.
Over time, I have realized that my heightened awareness extends beyond disabilities to an increased empathy for all who may seem different from myself for whatever reason. In addition, I have learned that directly experiencing life from a different perspective can broaden one’s understanding in ways that indirect observation cannot.