Searching for Independence

By Louise Sertsis

It's been my experience in the past, especially when traveling that I felt as though I was thrust into a pre-kindergarten era - a time where everything is done for me, instead of letting me explore, navigate and learn. Sometimes, I felt my voice was no longer heard. I seemed invisible to everyone except my husband, who is bombarded with impending questions from the airport staff. Initially, when I was coping with my disability. I was offended as frustration built, and I bit my lip, and screamed inside. I realize that most people just want to be helpful and time is tight due to the airline schedule but sometimes society has a lack of knowledge regarding inclusion of all abilities.

Frustration was a familiar response to situations that occurred, once Multiple Sclerosis started really affecting me. I used to be filled with pent up anger and shame, which completely changed who I was as a person. After many years of solitude, I was gradually able to channel these feelings into a positive. When I started using and seeing my circumstance in a new light, things started to change for me. While I still value my alone time, it's much more gratifying leaving my comfort zone, meeting new people and being the best version of me that I can be. It was challenging at first, but I'm doing things now that I never thought possible.

I have found that with any illness/disability, there is a definite process before reaching acceptance. In retrospect, my process took eighteen years, before I was able to speak of these views. Some people choose a path that is tainted with bitterness and fear, I know this, because I was one of those people. Living in agony was my normal and nothing seemed good or fun anymore. I essentially was just living, looking in as others enjoyed life.

If there's one thing that I've learned from being in a wheelchair, is that you should never live life under someone else's perception of you. I have struggled with doing the things that I want to do or accomplish, because someone believed that I couldn't, so I didn't. In hindsight I recognize now, it's a self fulfilling prophecy. I didn't want to live like that anymore.

For example, I fought forever to get a power assist device for my wheelchair, something that I thought would give me a better quality of life. I have Multiple Sclerosis, and regardless of not having had an attack in over eleven years, I was still denied funding because it was thought that it wouldn’t work for me. I made it my mission to be accepted by an occupational therapist (O.T.), to be considered for funding. Due to the unbelievably high cost of this device ($7500 Canadian), I really needed the government to provide the finances. Finally after months of searching, I was able to find an O.T. who would give their professional opinion, that I was able to use a power-assist device safely. I've had power assist for six months now, and I feel freer than I have, in years. This small success helped me change my views, from frustration to empowerment!

The more positive changes that I make within my life, the more independent that I become. It's about living the best possible life, believing in myself and knowing my limitations. I realize that I may need help in the future, but right now I'm living for today and choose to live in the present. My perseverance has given me more FREEDOM and independence. I am trying to be the most independent person for my circumstances. I am now more than confident in my abilities and my limitations. When I need help, I will ask as I'm not immune to needing help.

With this new mindset, I pondered travel. I believe that everyone in a wheelchair should feel

safe, independent and free: this is never more evident than when I travel. So I wondered, how can I be more independent and gain more responsibility to lighten the load for my husband? It is difficult to hold onto any bags because my hands and arms are busy propelling my manual wheelchair. I don't even feel safe with my purse on my lap or hung behind me on the hand rails. It's not practical or convenient to lug around items in the back of me, especially my essentials that I need to access easily. For me, turning my body around, leaves me feeling weak and exhausted.

Similarly to getting the power-assist for my wheelchair, which gave me more independence, I had a new idea to benefit myself and others in wheelchairs! It is for this reason that I have created the the "Handi Pac" by Advanced Freedom. It is essentially a backpack redesigned for people in wheelchairs, in fact, the only bag created especially for a wheelchair user that sits in front of the person. No more needing to lose energy retrieving things from the back/side of you. Safety is no longer a concern by placing things loosely on your lap, when you are concentrating on propelling. The "Handi Pac" will create more independence, and less stress for the person helping. Not only would the Handi Pac be great for traveling but also shopping, going to school or just needing a place to store things. Unlike your typical backpack, the Handi Pac has magnetic buttons/where you would normally see clasps, and zippers. It will secure to your thigh area with an easy release strap. It will run the length of your lower leg (from your knee to your ankle), with an easy access compartment to place your essentials.

This "Handi Pac" fills the much needed INDEPENDENCE that I have missed, since requiring a wheelchair. I will be able to do things easier like traveling, shopping and errands. This will allow me to safety and easily, rely on myself to carry things - something so small for abled-bodied people, but HUGE to anyone using a wheelchair.
Traveling now will be fun, as some responsibility is regained. Inclusion is a word rarely spoken, but it is my hope that the "Handi pac" will be used to help bridge the gaping hole that exists presently. Personally, I feel this greater independence will give me more confidence and will help to create inclusion, safety and freedom.

Although the Handi Pac is the first of many ideas I have, this is a starting point. It is
empowering to create products/company to help others, rather than feeling sorry for myself. I feel it takes much less effort to be positive instead of negative. By deciding to embrace my life in a wheelchair, I am able to be present today. I'm the same individual with all my hopes and dreams. I use my past experiences, to integrate into my life today. Essentially my hope, is to help and create items to impact individuals in similar situations. I realize that I have a lot to offer the world!

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