Meena Dhanjal Outlaw
One of the reasons I have emphasized the importance of being self-sufficient and free of any enabling is because in my experience of living with a spinal cord injury I have realized there are always going to be these odd turns in the road. They also tend to lead us to what I deem as unexpected distractions. They’re not unpleasant, but they are still something that makes me wonder why such a thing would even happen.
For example, during my Christmas holidays I socialized with some old and some new friends.
On one night, I went out with some ladies and I happened to be the one driving. It certainly made sense due to the fact that I drive a modified minivan that houses my power wheelchair. As we arrived at the venue, one of the ladies happened to mention something that had concerned her husband about our outing. He was worried that if for some reason I drank too much or something else happened that would prevent me from being able to operate the vehicle, then how would someone else be able to drive my van?
My initial thought was, “Ok, that’s a new one”. Then I went on to explain that, firstly, I don’t drink much, but that under a worst case scenario whereby I could not drive my own vehicle, my friends could quite literally put a regular chair in front of the steering wheel which normally houses my power wheelchair, which is how I drive. I went on to explain that they are able to drive my van normally using the foot pedals.
They were impressed with the answer and the topic of conversation never came up again. Even so, it was also obvious that her husband was staying up waiting for her and ultra protective because she was riding with me.
I could easily start to think negatively: oh, don’t they remember I drive my children around everywhere, or how could they think to say that or think that way about me? However, because I am already secure in who I am and how I live my life, I found my friend’s husband’s question to be intriguing instead of offensive. It made me realize that I am bringing awareness in all ways and in every sense of the word.
Firstly, I do it by leading by example. People see me getting in and out of my car, taking my children here and there, and of course managing my house, as well as maintaining employment. It’s definitely a lot for anyone without a disability to take in.
Many times I am asked, “How do you do all that?” Yet, I truly have learned to take it as a compliment. I find peace and solace in answering the questions. When I do, I also find that I am received well and the level of respect for me is increased.
Another situation occurred when I went into a restaurant and deliberately chose a table that was high. I didn’t notice until I was situated at the table that the waitress was looking at me with worry etched on her face. It was then that I laughed and began to elevate my power wheelchair.
She quite literally just let out a breath and said, “I was so concerned as to how you would sit in a higher table, but you had requested it so I didn’t want to say anything.”
In all these situations I am a fascination, even a novelty, to some people. Yet, I find I receive joy when I am able to show the independent side of me. I like seeing the change of expression from “oh,” to “wow”.
That doesn’t mean I have not had my share of unpleasant questions, such as, “Don’t they have a website where you could order online instead of coming out here?”
Another “favorite” of mine occurred when I went into a sandwich shop.
When it was my turn to order the person behind the counter looked around and then back at me with great concern.
“Do you not have anyone to help you?” He said, with eyes wide and hands on either side of his face.
I could only laugh because it was really that funny. Then I went on to reassure him that not only did I get here safely, order safely, eat safely, but also I would get back into my vehicle safely and drive home.
To that he just stood in awe, and truth be told, that’s the most beautiful reaction someone in my situation can receive.
There are always going to be questions and stares, but I have learned that most are truly because they just don’t know. I have also learned that they don’t mind receiving explanations.
For the one that mentioned the online website, I smiled and rolled on to shop as I had planned.
My takeaway thought from the recent encounters were had I continued to enjoy the ease and comfort of my family taking care of my every need, as was the case immediately following my paralysis, I would have not become strong enough and resilient enough to embark on all the interesting encounters that now routinely occur in my everyday life. I have accepted that this is part of living life after a spinal cord injury. As I continue to explain, just as many of my friends do in my situation, then in time society will truly have begun to know us for whom we really are.