Journal-News, a newspaper distributed in Rockland County, New York, December 9, 1991.
I'm re-publishing this column as part of my online blog. I still believe the message is appropriate today and is an example of the activities many of us with disabilities can enjoy in the United States, and perhaps around the world. Photos may be added to this posting from my collection or the web. Some of the organization names may have changed or no longer exist in New York State as of this writing. I hope you find this column helpful and informative.
"If I became disabled, I could never handle it," is a comment I hear sometimes from people considering my disability.
Coping with a disability is not easy. But there are many strengths, qualities and experiences that help people handle the hardships a disability brings on.
One quality I've admired in some friends who are disabled is their ability to forget they are disabled.
I'm specifically thinking of three friends: two are attorneys and one is an insurance agent. There are times when it seems like they don't think about the disability. Because they are able to focus on their jobs, they effectively put their disabilities out of their minds for a while.
Forgetting I'm disabled helps me reduce some of the stress and frustration my disability brings to my daily activities. I work on removing obstacles that remind me of my disability. I establish routines, plan my day and don't take on unnecessary risks.
For me, growing up in the infamous Fort Apache section of the South Bronx has also helped me cope with my disability. In my old Bronx neighborhood, I knew there were things worse than being poor and without a father. I could have been a drug addict, homeless or afflicted with AIDS. And, I know these conditions are still possible, so I now feel blessed, despite my disability.
Other childhood experiences also help me now. I learned which neighborhoods to avoid, because I wasn't the right color or race. I learned to flee, instead of fight street gang members who belonged to groups like the Savage Skulls, Bachelors Seven and the Black Spades.
One incident I clearly remember is a walk through St. Mary's Park, in the Bronx,with my best friend Ruben. Two men stopped us and asked for money. When we said we didn't have any money, they pulled out knives and robbed us of our leather coats.
I then learned the sense of helplessness that comes from being mugged at knife point, knowing that our coats would never be recovered.
Because of people like Mr. Garin, my sixth grade teacher at P.S. 27, I learned to cope with the death of my father at age 11. Mr. Rodriguez, my swimming coach at the St. Mary's Park Recreation Center, taught me to do my best, despite being poor. And Mr. Stern, my physical education teacher at Evander Childs High School, gave me the confidence I needed to apply for, and then succeed in college.
In many ways, growing up in the South Bronx prepared me for a physical disability. I now avoid buildings with steps. I don't attend social events being held at locations that can't accommodate my wheelchair. And, I now avoid people who discriminate or who just don't like being around disabled people.
Today, I have feelings of helplessness when I can't use the copier at work, can't pick up and hold my son or daughter at home, or do" fix it" things things around the house.
And, I still strive to do my best, even though I'm paralyzed from my chest to my feet, and cannot use my hands. I have great admiration for people who cope with head injuries, deafness, birth defects, blindness and others who face severe disabilities.
I feel the same way about able-bodied people in tough financial situations or people experiencing other personal hardships. I've learned that you can't always predict from what source your strength will appear when you are faced with adversity or disability.
And, you don't really know how you'll behave in another person's condition or situation -- unless you walk where he has walked, or, until you have worn her shoes.