I became disabled 15 years ago, through a spinal cord injury. And while paralysis and its complications are by no means easy, the challenges presented by society are far more damaging and difficult to deal with. Every day, I am forced to re-assert my autonomy, my competence, and my humanity. I experience aggressions on the micro level daily, when it is assumed I can’t speak for myself, or that the clothes I’ve chosen are ‘inconvenient’, or when it is assumed that I will joyfully run down your child in my wheelchair. I have experienced them on a macro level, when health concerns were not taken seriously and allowed to become life-threatening, or when my friends felt sorry for the husband who was leaving me because I was a burden.
I am rebellious and stubborn; I have a supportive family; I have access to money; I am white. These things give me the resources to continue to fight for dignity as a disabled person. But the fight is exhausting and continuous.
I share the story of a young man I met recently, who was in rehab for a spinal cord injury. This boy was a student. A young athlete in the peak of his physical prime, and he was now trying to come to terms with a life-changing disability. We can only imagine how difficult this would be. I saw that he was struggling, and I asked if he wanted to talk. He shared with me that he was depressed. Not because of his injury, as one might expect, but because he was afraid that his attitude wasn’t good enough and he was letting everyone down. He had already adopted the idea that his wellbeing was less important than the comfort of those around him.
As disabled people, we are conditioned to view ourselves as burdensome. We are taught to apologize for our existence, and to be grateful for the tolerance of those around us. We are often shown that our lives are worth less than nondisabled lives. Our lives and our survival depend on our agreeableness. Choice isn’t choice when our lives depend on compliance.
Spring Hawes incurred a spinal cord injury 15 years ago and is a tetraplegic. Since then, she has been an entrepreneur, an elected official, and is currently an appointed board director. She is also a board member for a large peer group of wheelchair users, and chaired an accessibility advocacy non-profit for many years. In her public life, she has been outspoken on the rights of women and marginalized and disabled people. She is passionate about working to ensure all people live well and envisions a world that embraces diversity and fully includes all people.