Here’s a question for you. Don’t worry, this isn’t a test. You won’t be graded. Probably.
What do you see when you look at a wheelchair?
Take a second to think about it. Be honest.
I’ll wait. Got it?
Let me tell you what I used to see. I saw four wheels and disability. I saw the wheelchair as a representation of inability — of what can’t be done. Can’t walk, can’t run, can’t get up stairs.
When I saw the blue-and-white accessibility sign, I saw inability. I rarely thought about the stick people on top of the wheels — stick people who seem, oddly, to have the wheels growing out of them. What medical condition causes that?
Anyway, my point is that in my mind, wheelchairs represented physical disability and inability to do things. I felt sad when I saw a wheelchair.
Until I used one for a while. Now I know that my wheelchair is completely awesome.
Initially I resisted using a wheelchair. Well, technically, I resisted all mobility assistance every step of the way as my neurological health declined. I resisted because I was being stubborn and stupid, which are my other maladies; just ask my family!
Here’s what happened when I was stubborn and stupid about wheelchairs: My legs got weaker and weaker, and I was able to walk less and less. My world got smaller and smaller. The scope of my daily life was dictated by how far I could haul myself around with a cane and then with crutches.
Walks in the park got shorter and shorter. I started avoiding stores that were too big — and more and more stores were too big. I started avoiding social events because I didn’t know how far I would have to walk. I couldn’t birdwatch anymore except from the car.
FYI: People in the park don’t always appreciate you sitting in your car and looking around with binoculars. Who knew?
The bottom line is that I lost much of my independence for a while. My life got very small. I was dependent on my wonderful spouse for too many things. I felt horrible about myself. I was isolated. I wasn’t me anymore.
It’s hard to have perspective on yourself sometimes. My inability to work my legs “normally” was a condition I couldn’t control, but when I look back now I think that it was the sad existence that I imposed upon myself that made me a truly disabled human being.
Slowly (because that’s the only way stubborn people grasp these things) I realized that I needed more: more life, more freedom, more independence. I had spent my entire life trying to maximize my abilities; why had I stopped doing that just because of my weak legs?
So I started using a wheelchair when I needed to go further — and suddenly life’s possibilities were much closer to infinite.
Now I go into pretty much any store. I go out to dinner (as long as the restaurant is accessible). I walk our old dog further than she appreciates. I nerd out watching birds in our more accessible parks. I did a 5k. I chase orcas, however unsuccessfully. I live life.
What do I see when I look at a wheelchair now? I see freedom. I see independence. I see ability.
I see a tool that I use to help me be what you probably are — able.
Paula Larson is a freelance writer and retired wildlife biologist. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.