Life can change in a second. Anyone who’s been in a car accident or who has taken their eyes of their child for a split second only to have disaster ensue can attest to that.
But what if that injury was serious—catastrophic even—resulting in a life you never imagined for yourself? What if it meant that you’d live the rest of your days using a wheelchair?
Recently I had the chance to find out what that would be like when Leandre Casselman from Spinal Cord Injury Ontario came to my house to spend a few hours with me. During the visit, which felt too short, I learned a lot, from the correct words to use when speaking with someone who has sustained a spinal cord injury to what it’s actually like to wheel around my neighborhood in a wheelchair.
It was all very enlightening. Once I let go of my preconceptions, of course.
A former pedi-cab driver and amateur gymnast, Leandre sustained his injury while attempting a difficult gymnastics move. Misjudging his height, he landed straight on his head. He has incomplete paraplegia and has most of the use of his hands and some movement in his legs. He lives his life to the fullest in his wheelchair, and has done more and travelled more than he did prior to his injury.
A pragmatist, realist, and optimist, he minces no words when he talks about his life. I learned a lot from him in the short time we spent together.
Lesson 1: People who have a spinal cord injury have paraplegia or quadriplegia. They are not paraplegic or quadraplegic. Their injury is part of them but it does not define them.
Lesson 2: The terms paraplegia and quadriplegia refer to where on the spinal cord the injury was sustained, and how the person functions afterwards. Using the terms complete or incomplete better explains the extent of someone’s injury and how they function. For example, a person with incomplete quadriplegia might be able to use their arms, breathe on their own, or walk, while someone with complete quadriplegia might not even be able to breathe on their own.
Lesson 3: Just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they need your help. In fact, it may be more important to that person to do things for themselves. While we may think opening a door for someone represents nice manners, to a person with quadriplegia, being able to open the door on their own is an accomplishment. When in doubt, wait a beat and ask first.
Lesson 4: When you sustain a spinal cord injury your status in society changes. People are almost overly courteous to you for fear of offending you. But a spinal cord injury is a part of life. It may be a defining moment, but it’s not the only one. Life goes on. Maybe a different one, but still a life.
Lesson 5: Don’t assume that life is more difficult for someone with a disability. Maybe it is, or maybe they’ve adapted and are doing just fine on their own terms.
Lesson 6: Having a spinal cord injury can demonstrate just how capable a person can be. It’s not the ending of an old way of life, but a beginning of a new one. And sometimes, beginnings can lead to great things—if you let them. Even if a person is unable to do things they used to do they can find ways to empower themselves. For self-worth, it’s important to regain as much independence as possible. If work isn’t an option, they can get good at their hobbies or volunteer, but when a life has meaning, it’s meaningful
Lesson 5: Advocacy is important. Those who have experienced a spinal cord injury need our support Homes, apartments, taxis, buses, cars, hotels, movie theatres, restaurants—these all need to be accessible for all to enjoy. It often costs very little to adapt a workplace, and involves just an assessment and a few hundred dollars. There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to government support, especially with regard to medical supplies, but improvements are not out of reach.
Lesson 7: Rolling around in a wheelchair is difficult but not impossible. In the short time is used one, I became a bit of a pro. It’s hard to visualize, but a nothing bump in the pavement is a major obstacle to a wheelchair (especially if it’s a novice like me turning the wheels). Just like driving a car, there are skills that must be learned. I almost fell out a few times, but since I have the use of my legs I could ‘cheat’ and save myself. Take note: Leandre has made it his personal mission to become a wheelchair stunt artist and has learned how to do halfpipes in a skateboard park (once an extreme sports aficionado…)
Lesson 8: Be prepared for things to go wrong. Not every country or every business is going to be able or willing to accommodate. You may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable, and people will give you strange, even pitying looks. It was weird, but I felt it and I wanted to yell, “So what? I’m in a wheelchair. Move along.”
I was very appreciative of Spinal Cord Injury of Ontario’s willingness to come up to my home and share their time while allowing me to experience, for just a while, what it’s like to live life in a wheelchair. Let me tell you that the Relay in a Box (Wheeling around pylons and picking up tiny marbles with oven mitts isn’t as easy as it seems) was enlightening.
If you’d like to learn more and get involved with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, visit their website.
And check out the Wheelchair Relay Challenge and Stroll event this Sunday, September 20, 2015 at 9:00am. For more information on the events, to register or donate, click here.
Follow along on Twitter: @sci_ontario #RelaystROLL2015