When I drive into a parking lot, these are the thoughts that go through my mind:
How crowded is it? How windy is it? How does my leg feel? How many packages will I need to carry? Is the slope uphill or downhill? Is it likely to rain? How crazy are the other drivers?
In my Honda Civic, I cruise up and down the aisles, searching for the perfect parking spot – not too close, not too far. I turn right, turn left, swing past the handicapped spaces. Most days, I don’t mind walking. And although some factors stand in my way – like comfort and weather — I don’t want to park in a space that someone else might need more than I do.
For me, this parking lot dilemma is just a symptom of a larger struggle – one that extends far beyond those blue and white lines. To be or not to be… DISABLED.
I have never applied for a handicapped license plate. I keep my handicapped parking placard tucked discretely inside my car door. I almost never use the handicapped bathroom stall. I hate to think of myself as “disabled.”
Being an amputee is a unique kind of disability. With proper technology, training, and prosthetic fit, it’s possible to feel quite ABLE. When my leg is comfortable, I walk steady and strong in my Genium Knee. I dodge kindergarteners in the school hallways. I use the treadmill at the gym. I lug grocery bags into my apartment. In jeans, my gait looks so normal you might not even notice I wear a prosthesis!
I don’t have as much energy as I used to, but I’ve found a daily routine that’s just my speed. I work a few days a week and exercise in the rehab gym on the other days. I volunteer as a peer mentor for new amputees. I read and write a lot. On weekends with family or friends, I hike, or bike, or skate – all thanks to extensive physical therapy, adaptive equipment, and the high-tech capacity of my Genium.
On days I can’t wear my leg, it’s definitely another story. I’m much more limited. But for now, those times have become less frequent.
Earlier this month, I reached new heights at an amputee rock climbing clinic. Many of the volunteers and trainers at the clinic were also amputees. At the top of my first climb, I suddenly froze with fear. Volunteer Tommy came to the rescue. He raced up the rock to where I was stuck, planted his own prosthesis firmly by my side, and talked me all the way up to the summit!
Activities like rock climbing make me stretch and push myself. But don’t be fooled. When I step out of my comfort zone, the risk is carefully calculated. I’m surrounded by a supportive team – therapists, coaches, friends, other amputees, even buddies from the rehab gym. I’m not alone. And I’m rarely up against “able-bodied” peers.
Until last Friday.
As our school week drew to a close, our faculty gathered for the Staff Olympics. It was a low-key competition designed by our gym teacher to build physical fitness and camaraderie. Participation was voluntary, but of course I signed up. I’m a team player. And besides, I never miss a chance to show off what my Genium can do! I joked with colleagues that I might even have an “unfair advantage.” (There was part of me that actually believed it!)
Of all the events, there were only two in which I could participate: Push-Ups and Sit-Ups. All of the others involved running, lifting, or balance far above my one-legged capacity. There was the Shuttle Run – 80 laps back and forth across the gym floor. There was the Water Jug Carry – 40 pounds for as many hallway laps as you could handle. And there was the Copier Sprint – a timed dash up two flights of stairs to — you guessed it – the photocopier on the school’s third floor. Goofy, I know. But remember, this wasn’t an Olympic arena. It was a city elementary school.
All afternoon, I smiled and cheered for my co-workers. But sitting there on the sidelines, a bit of loneliness crept in. I longed to participate in the games. Yet I felt — well, DISABLED.
Even on a good day, I lack that agility. That natural, easy flow of movement. For me, each step is calibrated; each motion, a balancing act.
I don’t often focus on my limitations. Since my injury, I’ve been backed by a team that doesn’t know the meaning of can’t.
Day to day, I strive to build skills that’ll put me on equal footing with my friends. I ride my bike. I hike with trekking poles. I rock climb. And through it all, I believe there’s a chance that – with lots of training and practice – I will be able to keep up with my two-legged counterparts.
After all, I’ve seen amputees do amazing things. They just have to do them differently.
Those Olympics were discouraging, but at the same time, they helped me envision where I need to go. I’d like to learn to use a running leg — not for long distances, but to give me more bounce, speed, and versatility. I realized that my current workouts at the rehab gym are still just that – rehab. I need to study what “able-bodied” athletes are doing. I need to STEP IT UP!
At that amputee rock climbing clinic, I met an incredible group of athletes, including Paralympian rock climber Ronnie Dickson. He’s a left above-knee amputee like me. This guy is afraid of nothing. He climbs the toughest of the tough, and teaches other climbers – “abled” and “disabled” — how to do the same.
As my friend and I were leaving the clinic, Ronnie gave us directions to a nearby hiking trail. “Do you have your handicapped placard in your car?” he said. “There’s a great handicapped parking area just by the trailhead. That’s where we park.” He motioned to himself and some of the other seasoned climbers.
Suddenly, it made perfect sense. For amputees, energy conservation is key. Even on a comfortable day, you can’t walk a mile just to get the trail head. It would cut your hike short! I’m not sure that makes us disabled, but it certainly makes us less able in that situation.
The parking lot was right where Ronnie said it was. I pulled my car into a space. I hung my handicapped parking placard proudly on the rear-view mirror.
To be or not to be…. Maybe there is no right or wrong answer. Maybe I don’t have to choose. Maybe there’s a place for me somewhere in between “abled” and “disabled.”
For now, I’ll just call it REALITY.
To read more about the amputee rock climbing clinic and see a video, visit my blog!
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