Often I find that my use of a wheelchair makes people on two feet very uncomfortable. I’ve come up with multiple theories on this phenomenon. Perhaps they realize that if he can be so young and have to use a wheelchair, then so could I. It is as if seeing someone with a spinal cord injury reveals to the person how fragile life and ability is.
I remember how this awkwardness translated when I first returned home from my hospitalization. So many people worried that they would say the wrong thing, they didn’t know how to have a normal conversation. I was reminded of this experience when a new injury relayed their experience of a recreational outing.
Although the outing had gone well, the new injury was clearly upset about what he had experienced. Rather than conversing with the rest of the group who had gone, he sat by himself facing the other direction. When asked why he had withdrawn, the client in question simply said, “This ain’t for me.”
As others asked why he had said that, the layers of his experience began to show themselves. Rather than the whole experience causing this reaction his comment was borne specifically out of his experience while ordering some food. What had been a simple order for a cheese-steak and order of fries devolved into a paraplegic surrounded by shredded meat and greasy potato sticks. The floor was littered with his previously mouth-watering morsels. This event, of trying to do a normal activity led to an embarrassing experience, dropping his tray. As this new injury explained, this experience had been negative and humiliating; so much so that he did not plan on going out of his house when he returned home.
Hence, what was an isolated normal experience of dropping a tray turned into a self-prescription of isolation in his house. What does this have to do with people not knowing what to say? My point here is that when this client dropped the tray his reaction was precipitated by the actions of those around him. As I looked on, I could see no less than 10 people rush to his aid and begin assisting him. From the outside looking in this was normal to me. I had 12 years of this reaction under my belt. But for this new injury this level of dependence on others and their comments about the situation made him entirely uncomfortable.
What should he do?
The challenge is to address his reaction, not his mildly failed attempt at independence. Although he may have experienced this as a negative and humiliating experience, when asked if he had ever dropped a tray before he said, “Well of course. But this time it was because I am paralyzed.” When I asked if he would have handled the situation differently he then said, “Well I would have put the food closer to me so I could wheel my chair and have the tray more stable.”
Already I could see that his mind was adapting. He had taken his negative experience and learned from it. By showing him how adaptable he was, I then encouraged him to view the entire occasion as positive. That he’d picked up another life skill to use when people don’t know what to say and that he sure had a funny story to relay to his doctor when he next saw him.