Facing down fears, raising awareness

NINETEEN BROWNIES from Troop 4224 gathered at my feet. I had just rolled backward down a steep ramp that covered three steps while they sang, “New Friends,” as my welcome.

As I spun around to meet the girls, they began one last exercise of shaking the wiggles out before they sat down “criss-cross applesauce” style. I unloaded my prop bag, put my notes in my lap and faced the 6-year-olds.

I was terrified.

For the first time in six years, I spoke about what it’s like to be paralyzed.

“Do one thing every day that scares you,” a birthday card taunted me a few years ago. The sender, a good friend and a limit-testing envelope pusher herself, knew me in preparalysis days, when we both raced our lives in the fast lane. When paralysis changed my track, my friend, with her own unscreened style, continued to challenge me to keep my engine revved and my life moving forward.

Last year, when the Brownie troop leader approached me to speak, I politely declined. Although I’ve been paralyzed for more than six years, sometimes it still hurts to admit I cannot feel or move my legs. The thought of admitting it, and then explaining to 6-year-old inquiring minds, overwhelmed me. Yet, at some level, I knew I wanted to get comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. I wanted to face this fear.

So when the troop leader asked again, I listened to her request with a different set of ears. Instead of looking for a way to say “no,” I listened for a reason to say “yes.” And she gave it to me.

She wanted to introduce me as her friend, a fellow mom and Sunday school teacher and then for me to talk about what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. She wanted the overall message to be that even though I am in a wheelchair, we are more alike than we are different.

It was a tall order, considering the many times that my wheelchair separates me from those I love and what I love to do, and makes me feel incredibly different. Poorly irrigated ballfields, misplaced sidewalk cutouts and ramps too steep to navigate wreak havoc with a wheelchair. More than once, I’ve become a joint project for dads who helped me tame the unkind terrain to see my son’s lacrosse and soccer games.

Then there are those unthinking motorists who use handicapped parking places at loading zones or short-term parking and think the hash marks beside those designated spaces are reserved for two-seater sports cars. Life from the wheelchair is unquestionably different.

But how? What could I teach the girls, helping them understand what may not be obvious about people who use wheelchairs?

I sketched out my thoughts, breaking down the complexities of paralysis into its simplest terms and the resulting lifestyle changes. I described the spinal cord and its amazing role in a person’s mobility, the cornerstone of concern for those using wheelchairs. We discussed who uses wheelchairs, what it’s like to be in a wheelchair and what they should think about when they see someone in a wheelchair.

For the grand finale, I demonstrated my minivan that lowers and automatically releases a ramp. As the ramp unfolded into the hash-marked area, the girls saw firsthand the need for the extra space. With disarming honesty, one Brownie confided, “My daddy parks there when he’s in a hurry.”

The Brownie leader quietly approached the young girl. “Maybe you should tell your dad how that affects someone who uses a wheelchair,” she gently suggested.

I watched her warm and caring manner as she, too, helped the child understand what may not be obvious. Grateful I had faced my fear, I realized that we are indeed more alike than we are different.

This article was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.