My Birthday Lifetime of Thankfulness Revelation

by Amy Saffell

This summer, I had a big birthday…the kind that ends in a 0. For me, this milestone was a threshold that a lot of my friends had already crossed, so even though it was strange that it was actually me this time, I embraced the dawn of a new decade. 

As is true for a lot of people, events such as these make me examine where I’ve been and where I’m going.  As I thought about it, I saw that where I’d been had been a lot of places, both physically and metaphorically, and that my life has been enriched by a plethora of factors, regardless of whether or not I realized it at the time. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these life-enriching experiences I attribute to my disability. People have a tendency to focus on what a disability takes away from a person’s life and don’t see the value that having a disability can hold. Being born with spina bifida, I've had a lifetime of learning to cherish the unique opportunities that my disability has brought to me. Now that it's the time of year where people think about what they’re thankful for, I can truly say that I am thankful for the experiences that my disability has afforded me.
I want to share about my own life in hopes that the stereotypes of how a disability affects someone’s quality of life can begin to be broken and that people with disabilities realize that their lives hold much more significance and bright spots than they may have ever recognized.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that everyone is in a different place in accepting his or her own disability. There are people who are not at the place where they have begun to see the positives that have come out of their disability, although I hope that I can serve as the catalyst for that kind of thinking. I’ve been very fortunate to live in communities that provided supportive environments for people with disabilities that lead me accept my disability from an early age and to build the resources around me to accomplish my goals. However, plenty of people have different levels of disability than me, and many people have had a variety of experiences that I haven’t. The bottom line is that anyone can find positive aspects of their life if they are willing to open themselves to the possibilities that positive aspects do exist. Don’t compare my journey to yours. If you don’t live in a supportive environment, it can be challenging, but small victories are definitely victories to be celebrated. No matter where you are in your journey, there is good to be found if you are willing to look. You might start with writing down a few things each day that you are grateful for so that you begin to turn your thinking that way. 

Don’t get me wrong; there are still days when I’m frustrated that I have to have help with something that seems simple or that someone clearly shows a lack of understanding about my disability. At times a task seems ten times more complicated to do or longer to accomplish than the able-bodied people around me  and there are moments when my disability doesn’t allow me to blend in with the rest of society quite as nicely as I would like. No lessons learned or positive outlook will change a lot of the things that happen in life, but it’s how you rise above these challenges that make the difference.

The main areas where I see that my life has been impacted for the better because of my disability are the activities that it’s given me the opportunity to participate in, the people that it’s lead me to meet, and the personality traits that it’s allowed me to develop.

Never A Dull Moment

I’ve never felt excluded from activities geared towards able-bodied people and have been involved throughout life in a variety of these activities in my community, but my disability has also given me unique opportunities to be involved in activities that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. Beginning from childhood, I was always involved in wheelchair sports, starting with tennis and then basketball. When my playing days ended after high school, I was student manager of our men’s basketball team in college, which was probably my favorite part of college life and something that I don’t think that I would have been involved in if I had playing options of my own. Since living in Nashville, I’ve water-skied, played sled hockey, and have recently become really involved in running with Achilles International’s Nashville chapter, a running group that proudly includes people with disabilities. In a few short months, I’ll be taking my first snow skiing trip. Unlike many able-bodied sports teams, the adaptive sports that I’ve participated in were “no cut” teams even though they’ve all been really competitive. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was good enough to play, although my competitive nature did cause me to want to work hard to raise my game. I was simply included in a place where I could work to develop my sports skills, make friends, and learn from throughout the seasons. I am grateful for this kind of atmosphere. 

Besides sports, lots of other opportunities have come about because of my disability. When I was younger, I went to all kinds of camps focusing on kids with disabilities that gave me opportunities for fun new experiences and for learning how to be more independent. My disability has brought me opportunities to write and to public speak about a variety of disability related topics, and I love that these opportunities have made me a better writer and speaker. My disability has caused me to hone in on my strengths since it naturally causes weaknesses in certain areas, and early on, writing and speaking became something that I discovered as a strength and an interest. I’ve been asked to serve on numerous advisory boards and committees because, usually among other things, people were interested in having my input because of my disability. I was Junior Miss Wheelchair Georgia and Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, and I can assure you that I wouldn’t have considered myself a pageant type girl unless these opportunities, which focused heavily on advocacy, were presented to me. I won the opportunity to go to New York and appear on ABC’s “What Would You Do?” because of a submission that I wrote to the show about my disability. Over the years, there have been countless community events related to people with disabilities that I never would have been invited to otherwise. It’s pretty evident that my disability has lead to some fun experiences over the course of my life.      

Some people would argue that my disability still closed the door on what I could participate in and that I would have been involved in even more activities had I been able-bodied, but I see it differently. If you’ve ever seen what my schedule is like, now or in my younger years, I can assure you that there has been no shortage of activity. Sure, my activities would have been different, but with what I’ve been able to do and the fun that I’ve had doing it, I don’t see how it could have been infinitely better. I’ve been involved in both predominantly able-bodied activities and predominantly disability-related activities, and I’ve pretty much loved them all. I haven’t felt cheated in any way for the times that I chose to be involved in activities just for people with disabilities. Everything has added value to my life, for which I am grateful.

My Own Village
Equally important to the activities that my disability has lead me to be involved in are the people who I’ve met along the way. There’s the phrase that it takes a village to raise a child, and I find nowhere is that more true than when raising a child with a disability.  I’ve been blessed with wonderful teachers, doctors, PTs, OTs, recreation therapists, and various other advocates who I never would have met had I not had a disability.  Lately, as I’ve gotten involved in Achilles International’s Nashville chapter I’ve made some amazing friends, both with and without disabilities, who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  I’ve developed friendships with other people with disabilities that are priceless in the way that we uniquely relate to and learn from one another.  Then, there are all of those people at the events that I talked about earlier who I never would have met.  And a lot of times, I’ve found that despite the fact that some people are reluctant to get to know me because they don’t understand my disability, many other people are actually drawn to me because of it, and I’m constantly working on opening up to other people because I find that they aren’t as intimidated by my disability the more that I’m willing to share.  It’s always a balancing act but one that is definitely worth pursuing.

Of those who are drawn in, sometimes great friendships, or at least fun encounters, arise from needing help to do something.  It’s easy to struggle with needing help from others, but I can say that I’ve gained really good friendships from and have some really fun stories about those who have had to help me when I needed it.  I didn’t come around to the idea easily, though.  Being on my own in college was a real turning point.  My sophomore year of college, I moved into the on-campus apartments, and it was up a pretty big hill to get to class.  I have always liked the challenge of a good push, so I left a little early my first day and headed up to class.  A perfectly nice guy comes up behind me and asks if I wanted a push since he was going my way.  I had become so bent on proving that I could do everything myself that I said no, and he was gone.  Being a people person, not to mention a single girl approached by a nice guy, I immediately regretted letting him go and missing the opportunity to get to know someone new.  I still don’t love having help to do things, but in the case of big hills, from that day on, I’ve always said, “I can get it, but if you want to help me so that we can walk together, that would be great.”  Changing my approach has given me the opportunity to meet some great people.  I try to play my cards right to come off as independent as I can, but I’ve learned that having people help me when I need it, like with chair maintenance, something medically related, or an accessibility issue, actually deepens a friendship in a new way. 

I’m even thankful for the naysayers who, by their skepticism, have caused me to work harder to prove them wrong.  One of the most unique aspects of having a disability is that I get to influence society just by being me.  I don’t necessarily take it as my personal vendetta to see to it that every mind is changed by doing things that don’t mesh with my life goals, but I know that every time I go to the grocery store, to dinner with friends, or to the mall is a chance for people to see that someone with a disability is out in society and that I’m capable of being independent and living a fulfilling life.  I’m interested in many things, and my life has purpose and meaning well beyond my disability, but I also know that my life has a purpose because of my disability, and  opportunities to influence society like these are part of that purpose. 

I don’t think that we’re meant to live without the community of others, and I’m thankful that my disability has made my community just a little bit wider. 

The Many Facets Of Me

Lastly, and maybe most important to recognize, are the personality traits that have been developed because of my disability.  It’s the chicken or the egg scenario.  Maybe I was given these personality traits that I was able to apply to living with a disability, or maybe my disability developed these traits in me.  I like to think that both are possible and that either way, my disability has played an important and positive role in developing who I am.
Perseverance is probably the most important trait that I see my disability having developed in me.  From medical issues to accessibility difficulties to attitudinal barriers in society, having a disability isn’t exactly easy.  There are lots of twists and turns along the way that have to be overcome in order to have success in life.  I recognized that from an early age and accepted the challenge.  Those challenges are inevitably going to come, but I am in it for the long haul.  When things don’t work out, I keep going, have faith that things will get better, and know that I don’t have to get through it all on my own.  Those people in my life who I talked about before have been pivotal in supporting me during difficult times.

Another trait that my disability has helped me to develop is being a problem solver.  From having to pick up things that have fallen in really tight spaces out of my reach to figuring out how to keep a large majority of my belongings in the lowest storage space possible to figuring out where to park my car when the accessible spaces are taken or to carrying three basketballs at once while still pushing my chair to a multitude of other challenges that come with having a disability, I’ve had a lot of practice in problem solving.  I don’t let my disability dictate what I can and can’t do, so when an issue comes up, I figure out how to get around it.  But this skill isn’t just related to disability issues.  It has totally shaped how I think about the world in general, and people often comment how I come up with solutions that they never would have.  Recently, I was having trouble with a computer program at work.  I knew there was a “right” way to do what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t figure it out.  I ended up playing around with it and rigging it the only way I knew how.  When my boss was available for me to ask, before he told me the “real” way to do it, he asked what I had done.  When I told him, he laughed and said, “I never would have thought of that” and complimented my problem solving skills.  Being a problem solver helps me every day, and I’m glad to have gotten so much practice.

My disability has allowed me to develop a plethora of other personality traits.  I’ve learned how to be assertive because most people won’t understand my needs related to my disability unless it’s brought to their attention.  I am independent because I want people to see me instead of my disability.  I have developed time management skills because I know that doing certain things are going to take me longer than most people, and I have to budget time in my day for those things.  I have a great sense of humor because sometimes things just don’t work out the way that I think they will because of my disability, and often in those times, all I can do is laugh.  I have developed responsibility through knowing that I have to work harder than most people to achieve the same outcome.  I probably have developed many more qualities because of my disability that I’m not even aware of yet.   

I may not have 100% success in showing these personality traits, but I’m a work in progress.  I’m pretty happy with who I am and who I’m continuing to become.  For the ways that my disability has shaped me, I like to think that it has made and will continue making me a better person.

I mentioned earlier that my milestone birthday helped me not only think about where I’ve been but also where I’m going.  The truth is that despite having goals, part of the fun of life does not know what’s around the bend.  However, I can use what I’ve learned about my past to see that things have turned out pretty well for me so far and that I can be hopeful about what the future holds.  In this season, I hope that my thankfulness rubs off on a few more people despite disability or other circumstances.  Life is truly what you make of it.     

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.  

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