“We've been to Europe, but you shouldn't go. How would you navigate the narrow cobblestone streets and sidewalks in your wheelchair?” they asked.
Confused, I responded “How do people already living and using wheelchairs in Europe manage?”
My friends aren't awful people. If anything, they wanted to protect me from frustration and injury. Eventually, I did travel Europe, even living and teaching in France. On the first trip, I was cautious, and thought I needed to anticipate everything that could happen. So I secured all my arrangements through a travel agency for people with disabilities. It was expensive. As I became more familiar, more comfortable, I traveled in a more spontaneous, organic way. Making friends in several countries helped me the most, both during the trips and for planning return visits.
On one trip, I flew alone and rendezvoused with my husband in Lisbon. It was very romantic. Another time, after just learning to drive a hand-controlled car, I drove my kid sister to see our father in New York City. We had quite the adventure.
Deciding on travel is one thing, but what about selecting health care, college, a marriage partner, where to live and work, or whether to have children or not? All too often the message from advice givers is “I know what's best for you ... no matter what.” Yet, my friends aren't me and they often don't know what I need or want, any more than I do for them.
When I was first paralyzed, numerous doctors declared that I would never walk again. They also said I wouldn't have a big life and that my parents should put me in an institution. After seeking yet one more medical opinion, my father asked a doctor at Mayo Clinic if he knew for a fact that I would have a shorter life expectancy. Could he swear beyond a doubt that I wouldn't have a big life? Walk again? The doctor finally said “no,” he couldn't be sure.
My father wanted this doctor to recognize his expert power and to not crush my hope. After all, I was 18. Dad wanted me to try new things and remain flexible as I adapted to my new life. If there was space for surprise and good things to happen, he thought I'd be fine. Ironically, no medical person ever warned me about the pain, loss and loneliness I'd feel as I watched some of my young friends die from their illnesses and disabilities.
Equally, people have pushed me to do things that I shouldn't have, such as when a relative told me a ski program was “ADA friendly” and I nearly killed myself. Or when without question, I dated the wrong people, picked mismatched roommates and tried medical treatments simply because someone convinced me to.
Each of us has our own style for making decisions; some depend on data, others go with their feelings, another uses their personal code or values, others look at each situation individually and still others look at all four options.
We've all benefited from the folks who have stretched our vision, the trailblazers, risk-takers. Trying new things is important to our growth as human beings. But don't take my word for it, find out for yourself.
Susan Odgers is a 30-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 41 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. Contact her at email@example.com.
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