Sunday, June 1, 2003

Alive & Well

Temporary disabilities can open eyes wide

A letter from a reader this week reminded me of an important connection all of us have to disability that warrants revisiting. Jane Van Coney of Delhi Township writes:

"I have enjoyed your columns for years, but they have special meaning for me these days. Back in February, I blew out my left ankle, requiring screws, etc., and have been getting around via wheelchair and walker since then. I thought I knew a little bit about disability issues, but since this has happened to me, I have learned quite a lot. Like ramps are steep. Places that look flat aren't. I can't reach stuff.

"All of this [inconvenience] is temporary for me, but it has been a valuable experience. Many able-bodied people see those with disabilities as 'other.' We think their needs and issues will never apply to us. But we never know what can happen to any of us, so we have to make sure we are responsive to people in all kinds of situations."

Temporary disability is, of course, a wonderful provider of insight. It can occur in the way this reader describes - accident or injury resulting in a shattered ankle, broken wrist, or the restricting presence of crutches, collars, casts, or other healing paraphernalia.

Sometimes temporary disability occurs due to a minor medical procedure intended, ultimately, to remedy other symptoms. A minor operation to improve vision, for example, might render you temporarily unable to read or drive. Joint replacement temporarily casts you in the role of a mobility impaired person. Many fairly common operations put lifting, walking, reaching, or grasping on hold. And medications designed to relieve pain can create a temporary inability to think clearly.

Sitting in a wheelchair for six weeks or even six months is by no means the same as being a paraplegic. The temporary disability interrupts life; the permanent one changes it. Still, there are certain lessons learned during temporary disability, lessons that, if more universally understood, would make the world a friendlier place for those of us whose disabilities are here to stay.

Those lessons include:

• While some tasks initially seem impossible, you soon realize that there is almost always another way to get the job done.

• Even with the addition of a temporary disability affecting some major life activity - walking, driving, or processing information - you discover that you are still the same person you always were: Despite former misconceptions, you have not transformed into an alien creature!

• You plan ahead with a different perspective. Going out to dinner or to a movie is not just a matter of choosing appealing cuisine or entertainment; you need to be sure you can get in the door, to a table, sit where you can see the screen.

• After the novelty wears off, you learn that you would rather people focus less on your bandages or braces or walker and a bit more on other attributes - your winning smile, awesome hat or charisma.

One in every five Americans has some sort of disability. All the rest, as some disability rights leaders are fond of saying, are just temporarily able-bodied. Illness, injury or age eventually brings most people into the realm of disability for a while or forever. Such change can serve, as it has done for Jane Van Coney, as a learning opportunity that fosters acceptance and understanding. Better still, as she so aptly points out, recognizing the sameness of people with disabilities can prepare you and put you ahead of the curve.

Contact Debra Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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