I was born without a care in the world. I mean, technically, we all were…but I brought that with me throughout my childhood and adolescence. At least until my injury. That’s when anxiety hit me like a Mack truck. I’ll never forget it.
Picture it. (If you don’t get this Golden Girls reference, please stop reading immediately and head to your nearest streaming service.) 12th grade. I was about 4 months post injury. I was still figuring out how to deal with the whispering and staring I got from strangers when they saw me in my wheelchair. I had always been an athlete, so in lieu of soccer in the fall, I decided to join the cheerleading squad. It was our first home game and we were playing our rival. As I was sitting on the sideline, I overheard some of the opposing players talking to the boy who was driving the car in the crash that paralyzed me. “Look at what you did to her.” I don’t know if they meant for me to hear them…and I know they were just trying to get into our teams’ head, but something about being that…noticed…just took all the breath from my body. I began to hyperventilate. I actually thought I was dying. My mom saw all the cheerleaders surrounding me and rushed over to remove me from the situation. I didn’t return for that game.
Why am I telling you this? Not because I enjoy reliving my first panic attack. But because this is far from where it ended. Anxiety is something that went from a feeling I didn’t recognize enough to be able to decipher it from actual imminent death, to something I prepare for almost every time I leave my house. I’m not alone here. Many people with disabilities are very familiar with the things I feel when I’m getting ready for a concert, or a football game, or even a trip to the grocery store. We have to run down our checklists of what could go wrong and what we can do to try to prevent it. “Will there be parking?” “Does the building have stairs? Uneven doorways? Are entrances wide enough? What happens if someone doesn’t see me and falls on me? Are shelving units too high to reach? What if the handicapped bathroom stalls aren’t big enough?” I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you the hours and hours of yapping I can do about what makes me not want to leave the comfort off my weighted blanket.
This shouldn’t be a thing. It is 2021. We just sent Jeff Bezos and a bunch of randos into outer effing space. But here I am, peeing in the alleyway outside the bar on a Saturday night because I had 3 beers and just have to break seal; but the bar doesn’t have accessible bathrooms. (I wish I was making that up…that’s a true story.) There are buildings that are exempt from being ADA compliant because they are considered “historical buildings”. Anyone who runs a business out of these buildings is not legally required to be accessible to people with disabilities in any way. I dunno, you guys….seems suspish. And super discriminatory. But it’s completely legal. This is a just another reason people with disabilities are anxious any time they’re planning on going somewhere new. Everything that could go wrong is always at the forefront of our minds.
This may see like something that’s bigger than us. And it kind of is. But there are ways you can help. First off all, write to your local, state and federal officials. We elected these people to make changes in our communities. Hold them to it. Second, if you are in an establishment that isn’t accessible, say something. Eventually, the right people will realize the importance of being available to everyone. And finally, don’t be a dingleberry when you’re out. If you see someone’s struggling, ask if they need help. (If they’re minding their own business and doing fine with their tasks, for the love of Harry Styles please do not bother them.) Watch where you’re going when you’re walking. We’re short, but if you stay at least a teeny bit aware of your surroundings, you won’t walk into our chairs or trip on us. Don’t whisper or point. If you have kids, let them ask us questions. If you’re just a nosey adult, remember that it costs $0 to mind your own business about how total strangers ended up with disabilities. You can be a part of creating a more comfortable world for us to live in so we can be as independent as possible.
If you’re living with anxiety due to your disability, you aren’t alone. Reach out and ask for help. Don’t suffer in silence just because you feel like a burden. You are worthy and we’ll get through this.