I am a very lucky person following a series of life-changing events. Not everyone who experiences a tragic injury is so lucky. Now I am a person with a “disability.” Today I am here and am able to act on and in the world in which I live. It wasn’t always so.
Let me take you back to 1997. I had graduated high school a year earlier and was a freshman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For my first college Spring Break, I borrowed my mother’s timeshare condo for a week in San Felipe on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. I was 18. I went with my USC dorm-neighbors and friends, Chrissy and Abbie. We had fun that week and packed up the car to return to University on March 15, 1997. That is the last moment I remember before my injury.
Immediately following my car’s collision with a stationary and empty school bus outside of Mexicali, Mexico, my head sustained such a blow that I fell from consciousness into a very deep coma for the next two months. My first conscious memories are of discomfort and aggravation. I could not speak, write or type! I think I felt punished or betrayed because I could not verbalize my thoughts or intentions.
But I survived, and I quickly learned to cope by pointing, motioning or signing what I wanted but could not verbalize. I was very much like an infant during the early weeks and months of my recovery and rehabilitation. I wore adult-diapers and first ate my food through a tube in my stomach, later eating pureed meats, vegetables and fruits that I actually swallowed! I couldn’t bathe, toilet or dress myself. But I was alive. I still knew my family and friends, and I still retained most all my memories, language abilities, experiences and education. I was still essentially ‘me,’ though now in command of a less-than-optimally-functioning vessel—my body. Soon I uttered my first words, and with practice was able to compensate for my dysarthria (a motor speech disorder).
Nearly one year using a wheelchair led to several months walking with a cane and finally resulted in my walking with only the aid of my ankle-foot orthosis (a brace on my right ankle). I returned to college, but now as a “student with a disability.” I thought of myself as the same person, only with—what was at first—the embarrassment or personal discomfort with my obvious “difference.”
My disability is not only manifested in my physical movements, including speech, but also in the ways in which I choose to live and recreate. No longer do I play soccer or basketball. No longer do I ski or cycle. Not that these activities are impossible for me or anyone with physical disabilities; I simply do not enjoy these activities as I did before, so I choose to spend my time and energy in other ways.
But each turn and decision at each fork in the road of my life these past 18 years inevitably have led to where and what I am today.
Sometimes I feel depressed and regret being denied the chance to have lived my life without the impairments of my disability. But each turn and decision at each fork in the road of my life these past 18 years inevitably have led to where and what I am today. I have a “disability.” I am not perfect. I try my best at most things that I do. I eagerly learn and value advice, opinions and suggestions from others—especially people with different experiences and ways of understanding than me.
I feel blessed for my situation now. I no longer dwell on what might have been. I am now fully me! Yes, I have a “disability,” but I could not imagine myself any other way. So when you look at me and question why I walk and speak differently, the simple answer is: This is who I am! Wouldn’t life be boring without all our individual differences, talents and abilities?
Cheers to diversity and to different ways of doing the same things you do!
I no longer dwell on what might have been. I am now fully me! Yes, I have a “disability,” but I could not imagine myself any other way.