by Amy Saffell
Self-confidence is a funny thing. A lot of times, it doesn’t start within ourselves at all. We gain so much from paying attention to the world around us and putting ourselves in position to learn from others. It is at this point when our abilities and self-perception drastically improve!
I work with a wheelchair sports and independence program here in Nashville. Kids in chairs participate in a variety of activities through the program in order to learn how to become more independent and, in the process, they get the opportunity to play sports that they may never before tried.
During a wheelchair basketball tournament this season, I was talking with one of the moms whose 12-year-old daughter is turning into quite an athlete. She’s only been on our team for a few years, but it’s clear that she has a future in the sport. Although I haven’t witnessed it, I’d heard that her independence skills outside of sports weren’t what they should be for someone so capable on a basketball court. Her mom told me that, for years, her daughter always said she didn’t think that she could ever move away from home. She lacked confidence in her abilities. Her parents tried to convince her otherwise, but it never sunk in; that is, until she started playing basketball.
The family lives in a small town, and there aren’t many other kids with disabilities around. Through basketball, however, she’s traveled to other states where she has met hundreds of other kids with disabilities. Recently, after seeing many older kids in the league be successful in basketball and go on to play in college, she told her mom that it was her goal to get a basketball scholarship. Her mom wanted to make sure that she knew that achieving her goal would mean having to move away, and she said that she knew and was willing to put in the effort to become more independent. Having friends with disabilities became a turning point in her life, and she’s now looking to the future!
It always brings me joy to see people believe in themselves for the first time. This girl always had the ability to achieve independence, but it wasn’t until she believed that she could that she was motivated to actually work towards it. At the same time, she didn’t believe in herself until she saw others, who were just like her, thriving in ways she'd only imagined.
There are certainly those who blaze their own path, and people with disabilities tend to be creative problem-solvers, but it’s rare that someone can achieve prolonged success throughout life without at least having some sort of a notion of how someone else achieved success in his or her own life. Able-bodied people have a relatively easy time finding someone else to model a path to success after because there are so many people around to look towards. They really don’t even have to think about it. People with disabilities, on the other hand, have a much more difficult time. Many people with disabilities don’t have dozens of other people with disabilities in their cities who are on a similar path and who are able to show them the way. That leaves it up to us emulating able-bodied people. I’m a firm believer that people with disabilities can do anything that able-bodied people can, but often the path that we have to take to the same end result is different, so we can’t always emulate our able-bodied peers without frustration. For example, we might know that waking up each day eager to make it to a fulfilling career on time is possible and something that we long for just like everyone else, but when we realize that work clothes are hard to get into and reliable accessible transportation is hard to come by, we’re not so sure what to do, and our goal of the fulfilling career suddenly seems far away. Having the advice of someone else with a disability who has been there becomes crucial.
I think that we all have a need to welcome people with disabilities into our lives because we learn how other people have been able to lessen that gap between those with and without disabilities. Being around people with disabilities teaches us that there are people out there just like us who have been through the same or greater challenges than us and have gone on to succeed at a high level. Learning that we can do something is just as important as learning how to do something. Some people fall into the trap of thinking that they’re alone in their disability and that they can’t do what everyone else around them does. Through being around others with disabilities, we learn that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel because other people have methods, tactics, and ideas that not only work for them, but they’ll probably work for us, too.
Even those who don’t feel isolated can learn a thing or two from others with disabilities. I grew up in Atlanta and now live in Nashville, and even though the majority of my friends were and are able-bodied, I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know someone else with a disability. My level of independence and the ease with which I do certain things, getting dressed, for example, is definitely related to those friendships. From my experiences, I now have resources for questions even when my friends with disabilities aren’t close by. I have learned different things from the able-bodied people in my life than those with disabilities, and I’m still learning. I find it rewarding to be able to blend a solution that I’ve created to a problem with someone else’s way of doing things that might be just a little bit better. Nearly every time I spend time with someone with a disability, I pick up something to perfect a skill, and sometimes, I don’t even realize that I don’t know the easiest way to do something until I see another person with a disability do it. Other people with disabilities help teach us how to do things in ways that able-bodied people can’t because they haven’t been where we are.
So, how do you make the jump forward from not knowing many people with disabilities? Hopefully you all gain inspiration from the stories that you read on mobileWOMEN.org and have reached out to other readers through our "Community" section and active facebook page as well.
Taking these steps is an excellent start. Ultimately, I would argue that there’s nothing like meeting someone face to face. Seeing someone online is great, but that short article or video doesn’t give you the opportunity to see what their life as a whole is like, to see that their challenges are similar to yours, or to interact with them. It’s a limited view that makes us question whether they really are like us or whether it just seems that way. Meeting someone in person allows you to experience their life first-hand, to see their challenges, and to know that they really do overcome them. It’s an experience, and you get to have a say in what you want to learn.
As I said before, you may have to seek out people with disabilities if you don't know peers in your community. Maybe start by planning a trip to see a mobileWOMEN friend who you've gotten to know. In my life, I have found that athletes are great people from which to learn. Athletes are go-getters. Physically, they have built up enough strength to do all kinds of things, from the day-to-day living to pushing the limits of the body, but most of them started from little strength and worked their way up, and they know how to help you do that, too. It can be intimidating to jump into conversation with an athlete when you know that your skills are not yet developed, but athletics is a really supportive community that wants to help others. There are tennis, basketball, rugby, or other athletic groups or tournaments in most states.
I also learned a lot from the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant, a pageant built on advocacy ability. The women there all had drastically different disabilities and were facing various obstacles based on where they lived, but I learned from each of them. Most states have state pageants that feed into Ms. Wheelchair America. Even if one of these kinds of events isn’t held in your hometown, I would strongly advise making a road trip.
No matter what your level of confidence today, we can all use a boost. Learning from others similar to us always helps and, thanks to technology, there are many ways to find your peers! Take a deep breath, embrace the idea of broadening your horizons, and get ready for new-and-improved you! Just like my 12-year-old friend experienced, you never know when a new endeavor might result in a surge of confidence to turn your whole life around.
Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.