January of 1987 brought lots of changes in my life. I started college in Kansas, far away from everything familiar at the time, and it definitely took some doing to adjust to my new life. Not only was I living on my own, so to speak, without the safety net of my family, but the warm weather of Houston was a distant memory as I navigated my first week as a college freshman. The deep snow was exciting at first until my wheelchair got stuck. Then it quickly and literally became a drag.
But it wasn’t just my new physical surroundings that I had to get used to. It was the social ones as well. Because of some significant health issues, I had been dealing with, I had to postpone my first semester, which meant that I didn’t start on campus at the same time as most of my class. They already had a semester under their belts. They had this routine down. People knew each other. Friendships were formed. All long before I showed up.
Nobody was blatantly unkind to me during that time, but I was feeling a distinct disadvantage. At first, living in the hall of my dorm felt like I was crashing somebody else’s Christmas. Everyone else belonged to the group. I was the outsider.
In between classes and doing homework, lots of effort was made on my part to connect. I forced myself to go outside my comfort zone a lot, even though it was, well, incredibly uncomfortable. A couple of times a day during my first few weeks I would swallow my shyness and knock on the doors of other rooms, hoping I could have a conversation with the people inside. I was fortunate enough to meet many girls with big hearts who all lived in rooms that happened to be within the sound of my voice. They were willing to help if I needed something. They were also willing to just say hello.
I remember an interaction that probably took place in the third week of classes during my first semester. I was in my dorm, in the hallway outside my room, having just returned from the cafeteria. I had met most of the girls living in my hall, but I was still in the process of meeting their friends. Jane lived about four doors down from me. When she saw me sitting in the hallway, she brought over her friend Kyle and introduced him. They had gone to high school together.
After he smiled and shook my hand, he asked: “What is it like to be in a wheelchair?”
I was taken aback just a bit. I wasn’t offended by the question, nor did I think it was the least bit inappropriate. I just thought it was interesting that he thought I would be able to give him an accurate, articulate answer in the space of two or three sentences.
A million things ran through my mind at once. Did he want to know about the dozens of surgeries I had gone through and countless hours in physical therapy, along with numerous other things that had sometimes made my life difficult? Should I tell him about the many things I had been able to do that I probably would have never considered if were not affected by my disability? Covering each one of those subjects could take me hours. It was hard to know what he was looking for, and the subject was equally hard for me to address.
After several seconds, I still wasn’t sure how to respond. So, I just said “I don’t know, Kyle, I have never known anything different. What is it like to walk?”
He looked startled, paused for a minute, and then understood my point. It is almost impossible to describe your life experience as the answer to a single question.
I can imagine that it would be weird for someone not affected by disability to be asked what it is like to walk because it is probably something they do without much thought. Most people learned to balance and put one foot in front of the other before they were verbal and don’t remember what not having the ability was like. As they grew up, it became what was necessary to do if they wanted to be anywhere other than where they were. Simply a mindless means of getting from place to place.
Same goes for me and my wheelchair.
I still get asked what it is like to be in a wheelchair routinely. And all these years later, I am still not sure how to respond. So when I answer the question I tend to stick with what I believe to be a universal truth.
The parking just rocks.