What the Last 5 Months Have Taught Me About Living with a Physical Disability

I don’t often take the time to share some of my more human experiences… particularly the humbling ones. I am at the end of a six month experience, one that I didn’t plan on taking.  I learned a lot of things that I need to share and I hope that this experience will help change others point of view.

What Happened?

In July, I had an accident.  The short version is that I fell down the stairs at Washington, DC’s Union Station while on the way to work. Despite my stubbornness, I was taken out in an ambulance because I couldn’t move my leg or put any weight on it.

Turns out I tore things up pretty well.  A partial tear in the Anterior Cruciate Ligament and a shredded meniscus.  This lead to several weeks of therapy and conditioning, just so I could have surgery and start the therapy process all over.

Ouch, I know.  But things happen.

What was shocking to me is how my world changed and the way that most of the world treats those who are differently abled.  My experiences are those of a visitor… through lots of therapy, a great surgeon, and loving care I am back to mostly walking.  A full recovery awaits me… but I think it's important to share what I learned along the way.

Before I do, I have a few clarifications.

  • I am not looking for sympathy
  • My five months doesn’t compare to those who live their lives this way every day
  • My talking about this is to raise awareness for the people I can reach out to

Helping Others Is Normal

When I had my accident at the train station… it was scary.  Falling headfirst down a staircase and catching yourself on a railing to stop your fall isn’t a recommended way to travel.  At first I thought I’d be okay and told the one person who stopped to help me to move on.

After it became clear that I couldn’t really move.  I dragged myself over to a wall to lean against it.  I tried to ask for help.  People avoided eye contact or walked around me.  More than 20 people walked past me as if I was a panhandler.  Too busy or indifferent to see what was needed.  Finally someone did stop.  A foreign visitor who saw I was hurt and then went to find a guard at the station.

Once the guards arrived, people continued oblivious to the situation.  Numerous people came up and interrupted the officer trying to help me to ask questions about where to catch a taxi or how to validate their parking.  It seemed to me that the vast majority of travelers couldn’t see beyond their smart phone and personal needs.

Health Care Compassion

The medical providers who took care of me that day were awesome.  Being taken out on a stretcher in an ambulance was scary.  The hospital staff saw me promptly and tried to help with the intense pain.  During my admissions process, it turns out the technician checking me in was even a lynda.com subscriber who enjoys my photography classes.  He took the time to thank me (and had enough sense to not ask me Photoshop questions in the hospital).  

After a few days of treatment and tests, I had a diagnosis and a care plan. Lots of physical therapy and exercise to get the strength back, then surgery on the knee. Unfortunately I had a very full summer and fall of work and speaking commitments. This led to me getting right back into the thick of things despite being greatly challenged.

My Physical Challenges

During my injury and recovery periods I ran the full gamut of physical impairment.  I went from forced bedrest and immobility where my patient wife, mother and kids did their best to help me.  

Once I got mobile, I was able to usually get around short distances on crutches.  But the medication often meant I couldn’t drive (thank goodness for Uber and family).  At airports, I’d often give into to using the courtesy shuttles (when they’d actually stop) or wheelchairs. 

Post surgery I ended up with an electric scooter for a few weeks.  I had both a conference where I was speaking and a family vacation that I couldn’t cancel.

All of these were interesting experiences and let me see first hand how clueless and careless most of the world is.  My own father is often dependent on a scooter or a cane due to a spinal injury… my short time experiencing this has made me much more understanding.  It is that understanding I hope to pass on to you.

Nine Things I Learned from This

This process of surgery, rehabilitation, and physical therapy has been quite demanding.  I was in fact just cleared to get off my crutches and start more strenuous exercise.  What really stands out though is not the tough process of getting my leg back… rather its the way I was often treated.  Let me share a few experiences so hopefully you can act differently the next time you encounter someone with physical challenges.

#1 Those seats labeled as for disabled folks don’t belong to you.  In just about every train station, airport, and bus there are seats labeled for use by the elderly and those with disabilities. Nine times out of ten, I’d need to ask someone to move.  That prime solo seat on the train is really useful when you need to extend a leg in an immobilizing brace…. it’s also great for the young professional who wants to spread out all their stuff and not have to sit next to anyone else on the train.  If you’re sitting in one of these seats, be prepared to give it up.

#2 People are Unaware of Their Surroundings.  I found myself on the streets of Los Angeles and in Orlando on an electric scooter.  For this two week period there were over a dozen instances of people walking right into my scooter and tripping or falling.  Mind you in each of these cases I had stopped my movement and often used the silly electric horn.    People were so intent on looking at their smartphones that they couldn’t notice me at the four foot level.  Crash and fall happened a lot… followed by people often swearing at me to look where I was going.  I wonder how many people die each day crossing the street while cruising Facebook and Twitter?

#3 Public Transportation Needs Major Upgrades. At Union Station, the escalators are still under repair five months later (that’s why I was walking down a wet, worn out staircase.  The number of elevators or ramps is very limited at the stations I passed through between DC and New York.  Often times access was closed due to broken equipment or construction.

#4 Companies Pretend to Care. It’s good public relations to appear sensitive. But actually accommodating people can be tough.  While on a vacation we needed to take shuttle busses provided by Disney.  Numerous times the bus would show up and be “too full” to accommodate us.  Too full meant that the driver didn’t want to actually move the people out of the special area to hold the scooter and instead would let another 20 people on the bus instead.  We waited up to 45 minutes in order to get a ride, sometimes it was only because my wife forcibly got on the bus first and made the driver comply.

#5 People are Often Very Self-Centered.  During this injury period I moved slower than normal.  Getting on and off airplanes wasn’t fast… navigating an elevator on crutches with a suitcase is a challenge.  Time and time again, people would physically push.  Either bumping or climbing over me as they wanted to get on their way.  I was astonished how many people would physically push their way around me to get someplace 30 seconds faster.

#6 Support Services Often Fail.  At the airport, there are supposed to be porters to help with bags and wheelchairs or people to assist in getting to and from gates.  Often there are not enough or they aren’t scheduled to work in non-peak times.  Also, the shuttle vehicles that often ran around the terminal would rarely stop… instead shuttling VIPs and blowing right past me.  

#7 Many People Would Like the Disabled to Just Stay Home.  Throughout this process I experienced many challenges with access.  In trying to attend normal social functions and events tied to my business travels, I frequently found myself shuttled through service elevators and weird corridors.  In trying to gain access to many places, people seemed annoyed to make accommodations that were often needed.

#8 Don’t Use The Handicapped Bathrooms If You Don’t Need Them.  In just about every bathroom there are special stalls to make it easier for those with reduced mobility.  Being on crutches it was harder to navigate and I also couldn’t bend my leg much.  By the time I made it to the bathroom I often really needed to go.  Time and time again these special units would be occupied by people who didn’t need the space.  

#9 People Think That Many Disabled are Trying to Cheat the System.  On my visit to Disney, there were many accommodations to make accessing rides easier.  Special lines that could accommodate a wheel chair or scooter.  The goal here was a straight shot that didn’t mean winding through a never-ending maze of turnstiles. Many assumed we were trying to cheat the system and jump lines. From dirty looks to sarcastic statements I was amazed at how cruel people could be. This experiences was mirrored many times over in public encounters where people would get annoyed by priority boarding or being seated earlier than them.

My Lesson

During this period I learned a lot about seeing the world differently.  That woman in the electric scooter next to me at Disney who looked healthy enough to walk was recovering from cancer.  The guy who needed to sit down on the train had an amputated leg and was wearing a prosthetic limb.

The world is filled with people who are less than “perfect.”

But the state of one’s physical body rarely has a direct correlation to the quality of person on the inside.  Additionally, everyone has the right to live as “normal” of a life that they want, even if that is occasional inconvenient to others in public situations.

Now It’s Your Turn

My goal in writing this isn’t to shame you.  I too have been guilty of being in a hurry.  I never fully appreciated the challenges others have faced.  My time spent was temporary… but long enough to make me aware of the problem.

The next time you are in public… be aware. 

  • Watch where you walk.
  • Hold the door open. 
  • Offer up your seat.
  • Don’t push your way through.
  • Make eye contact with those you meet.

I hope in sharing this I can get a few people to slow down and think of others.

I invite you to comment and share your own stories.  My goal here is to start a conversation and raise awareness.