Hannah — with arms only

Ed Smith
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I don’t talk about disabilities very much.

For one thing, in my experience very few disabilities are funny. There is a joke about a fellow with quadriplegia, a guy who’s hard of hearing and a blind man entering a house of ill repute together, but you don’t want to hear that one. At least, you shouldn’t.

We who are in the same boat can laugh at it ourselves, but that’s different.

Another thing — I was warned at the beginning not to get too tied up in things that apply directly to me such as disabilities. If you do that, they said, that’s all people will expect to hear from you, and that will destroy you as a humorist as well as a columnist.

So, I heeded, and concentrated instead on noncontroversial things such as politics, religion and sex.

There’s a joke about a priest, a rabbi and a gay chap. The punchline is something about all three being in the same category. I suppose it could be regarded as politically incorrect, morally reprehensible or not funny.

However, this week we are throwing caution to the wind and jumping headfirst into the muddy waters of disabilities.

No, I’m not going to talk about mayor what’s-’is- face and his stand on illegal parking in handicapped parking spaces in St. John’s. Personally, I have offered to be his campaign manager for re=election based on that fact alone, but I don’t think he’d have me. That would be something like Brad Cabana offering to be project manager of the Muskrat Falls project. Or co-host of Open Line with Randy Simms.

Some time ago, a friend who lives just up the street sent me an essay his granddaughter, who was born with spina bifida, recently wrote to explain how she deals with her disability. Hannah is barely an adolescent, but her attitude, as she says in her last line, is one state we should all embrace.

Swimming with arms only

The water feels great as I swim to the deep end of the swimming pool. I am wearing a snorkel  … with a small oxygen tank vest because I am taking a scuba diving course.

The instructor has thrown items that sink to the bottom of the pool for the divers to collect and I practise staying underwater to collect the items. The swimmers around me kick hard with flippers on their feet trying to get these items as fast as they can.

But wait, you may be thinking, how can someone who is paraplegic like me, be in this pool snorkeling and swimming? Well, the answer is simple. I am swimming with arms only.

What does it mean to be paraplegic? A person who is paraplegic is paralyzed from the waist down due to spinal cord damage. Some people like me are born with spinal cord damage or some type say of disability and some people become paraplegic because of accidents or illness.

Some people might think that someone with paraplegia can’t do the things able-bodied people do.

That is not true.

We can do lots of things able-bodied people can — we just do it differently. For example, if you have ever watched the winter or summer paralympics you would have seen wheelchair athletes competing in sports such as downhill skiing, curling, sledge hockey, swimming or racing in wheelchairs.

Power-athletes use adaptive equipment such as sit-skis for skiing, push brooms for sledge hockey and racing wheelchairs for racing for competing with “arms only” in their sports. Just like for able-bodied athletes their goal is to train hard and win.

Another example is the Rick Hansen “Man in Motion” tour which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Rick was only 15 when he had an accident that caused him to become paraplegic.

He loved sports so he worked hard to find ways to still do all of the activities he enjoyed while using a wheelchair. He noticed that there were a lot of physical and attitudinal barriers for people using wheelchairs.

He did a cross-continents or world tour using only his wheelchair to raise money and awareness for spinal cord injuries.

He also wanted to show people how important it is to provide adaptations and accessibility for people with disabilities to fully participate in everyday life.

Rick Hansen is a great example of someone who believes that disability does not mean inability.

It is not just sports but everyday activities that wheelchair users can also do (what others can) do — just differently. For example, wheelchair users cook, drive, go to school, shop, travel and work at a variety of jobs.

All it usually takes to do wheelchair activities are adaptations such as ramps, automatic doors, elevators, wheelchair washrooms, controls for driving, accessibility to materials and supplies and inclusion attitudes in the community.

Sometimes I get asked why I am in a wheelchair. What I would like people to know is that I am not in a wheelchair — I am a wheelchair user. Saying someone is in a wheelchair is an outdated term. Wheelchair users would prefer you to think of them as people who use a wheelchair.

Swimming, biking or swimming with arms only, along with a can-do attitude, allows me to do most things able-bodied people do — just a bit differently — just like you I have dreams and goals, things that I love doing and things I find discouraging. What I tried to do is live by Rick Hansen’s model: “When you believe in yourself, nothing is impossible.”

I encourage you to do the same.

So there you are, your worship O’Keefe. You say that those drivers who don’t give a damn for Other Half or me or anyone else who has a physical mobility problem won’t listen to you.

They won’t listen to me, either, and I’m not even a politician. Stupidity doesn’t often understand logic.

Try slipping a copy of Hannah’s essay under their wipers.

Perhaps they’ll listen to youngsters who are a lot smarter than they are.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.  His email address is edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Geographic location: Springdale

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Recent comments

  • RJ
    March 03, 2013 - 01:49

    Everyone has some form of disability.Fighting through them knowing there is always someone else in a worse spot then yourself keeps you from self pity.