“It’s not the disability that defines you; it’s how you deal with the challenges the disability presents you with.” –Jim Abbott-
We don’t realize the value of our legs until we can no longer use one. Most of my life I walked, ran and jumped without giving a thought to my legs. It wasn’t until I was faced with getting around on one leg and crutches that I realized the true value of having two healthy legs.
Six summers ago I experienced my first ankle surgery. The recovery required eight weeks of non-weight bearing on the operative ankle, which meant using crutches to ambulate. I had already been on crutches for six weeks, so I’d had good practice. I was a teacher so had the summer off to recover, however three weeks in I attended a three day reading conference. This would be the first time I would be in unfamiliar surroundings with no one I knew to assist me. It was then that I got the first taste of what it must be like to have a permanent disability that compromises your mobility.
How would I manage? How much walking would be required? How would I carry materials? Would the building be accessible? Would I need to climb stairs? Would I be able to elevate my leg? Would anyone offer assistance?
I was among 300 able-bodied teachers and oddly felt completely alone, while at the same time feeling as though I stuck out like a sore thumb. I struggled by myself all three days to do the things everyone else did without a thought. While everyone else socialized each morning with their coffee and danish, my focus was on getting seated in a spot where I could easily get in and out, rest my leg comfortably and not be in anyone’s way. While all 300 people moved from workshop to workshop, I hobbled among them invisible and focused on every step I took. Yet if I had to get up and leave a room to use the bathroom I felt like every eye in the room was watching my struggle with the crutches. As I left the conference at the conclusion of the third day I couldn’t help thinking about the experience; I had been temporarily disabled and had a whole different perspective of what someone with a permanent disability must face every day. Mine was temporary so I still could not even start to imagine what they went through, but the respect that I felt for them at that moment was tremendous. To have to face every situation the way I’d faced the last three days and be able to go on and live a full life is a true testament to the human spirit.
Almost six years and six surgeries later I am now that person with the permanent disability and use crutches full time. The crutches have become somewhat natural extensions of my arms and are tools I value highly. For the past year I have adjusted my life to this reality and have come to live a full and active life with the use of crutches. For walking purposes I find them quite efficient and comfortable to use. However, without the full use of my legs so many of the things we do every day without thought become a challenge. The reality I discovered at the reading conference six years ago has become my everyday life.
Since that conference I have been so many places and done so many things on crutches that I have become a very independent and experienced crutch user. Not having the full use of my leg and using crutches is just a natural part of everyday life, but I don’t think I will ever not envy those who have two healthy legs. It’s the ease of everyday life that is now daily challenges that were taken for granted.
Using crutches to walk each day takes an enormous amount of planning. The main reason for the planning is because your hands are now an essential part of walking. The average person picks up whatever it is they need and leaves for work. If they want a cup of coffee they grab it and go. This is not the case when you need your hands to hold on to your crutches to walk. Think of all the daily tasks that involve using your hands to pick something up and transport it, and then imagine finding an alternative way to accomplish each of those tasks. Therefore I am always planning ahead and have numerous methods of managing life’s tasks, however many things I avoid because they become uncomfortable or unpleasant. Example: Just as I didn’t participate in the coffee and danish at the reading conference six years ago, I would still avoid that situation today. Why? It’s simple – it would put me in a vulnerable position. Moving around a crowded room, with no place to sit, while juggling a cup of coffee, donut and a pair of crutches doesn’t make for a pleasant time. I would either draw attention to myself trying to manage on my own or by asking for assistance with something as simple as holding a cup of coffee and danish while mingling in the crowd. Even if I simply chose not to take anything and just hang out and talk, people ultimately start questioning, offering and making a big deal, which once again only accentuates my disability. So, if it is not a necessary event, I decline. The risk of having people pity me is something I cannot allow.
Six years later every time I face an unfamiliar situation, I still find myself asking many of those same questions I did before the reading conference. Will there be stairs and how many? What if the floors are slippery? How far will I have to park? What if it is raining (can’t run and can’t hold an umbrella)? Will the building be accessible? How will I transport items? Will there be a seat that is easy for me to access and where I won’t be in everyone’s way? These are all questions that have become part of my everyday life and things most people never give thought to.
The healthy legs that I once took for granted are now considered every minute of my days. I am aware of every step I take and every surface the tips of my crutches hit. Every day I try to be normal but the challenges of daily life are constant reminders of my disability that makes me different. As far as I have come in accepting my situation, I still find myself feeling envious of people who seem to walk without giving it a thought. I also wonder if they appreciate their legs and realize how quickly the ability to use a leg can be taken away.
It is okay to be sad about what you have lost once in a while, as long as you know when to pull yourself back.
Thank you for reading! Come back in two weeks when I’ll share my top ten ways I carry things and walk with crutches.