Trial by Water

Paralysis comes in all shapes and sizes. Most able-bodied people, and I count my former self among them, need only see the shadow of a wheelchair before assigning a template–he is sick so he cannot walk– to the disabled. We are not trained to recognize the extraordinary diversity among those afflicted with spinal cord injuries, strokes, or any of the host of other paralyzing agents. A quadriplegic is a quadriplegic, right? Wrong. There are quads who can’t breathe, quads who can’t move, quads with no arm function whose legs work just fine, paraplegics who deal with the opposite, hemis who can use only one side of their bodies, ones who can move but not feel or feel but not move, and on and on and on. Oh and don’t forget about the underlying genetic diversity of the people themselves. Paralysis doles out his curses blindly, dusting some more profoundly than others.

But if there is anything that unites us, it is our yearning for independence. Possibly the greatest evil associated with spinal cord injury is the loss of independence. Sure, not being able to walk or run or swim sucks, but that is nothing compared to having to ask for a cup of water, or allowing someone to tie my shoes. It is in the countless mundane tasks that I notice anew my disability. I will be honest, I hate asking for help. But ask I do. I do what I have to do so that I may do what I want to.

Like waterskiing. Yep. That’s right. To your private lists of what seems impossible you may now add this: I went water skiing this past Saturday on Lake Allatoona in northern Georgia. Thanks to an adapted sitting waterski and the amazing generosity of the Shepherd Center volunteers, I spent ten minutes zooming along the water’s surface, the sharp wind whipping away my misgivings and fears. I had a blast. This was something I feared I would never do again, resurrected by adaptive equipment.

So what does adaptive equipment do in the arena of independence? On the surface, it seems to have suspended my disability long enough for me to enjoy a new activity. But I can never shake away a deep reservation regarding adaptive equipment. For me, using a sit ski or a splint or a lap desk comes with a curious blend of empowerment and belittlement. I appreciate its value even as I despise its need. Yet I still make the decision to use it—I still ask for help. So it appears that pride must sometimes be neglected in favor of inclusion. Perhaps everyone can benefit from this thought. I need to realize that asking for help is not the same as ignoring my own worth; to suppress one’s pride is to recognize that something larger than oneself is at play. Something that Paralysis may never get his hands on.