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Randy Learns to Stand Tall
No Need to Dodge Dependency
Randy didn’t sleep well that night. It didn’t matter, it seemed, that he had made his decision. He just didn’t know what to expect the next day, Valentine’s Day.
But now was time to stop the bickering.
“Don’t Take your wheelchair to school!” his wife, Norma, would end up demanding, as he would leave for his teaching job at Edgewood Elementary School. He would not disobey her insistent demand, even though his legs would ache through the night, and he would get up grouchy in the morning and not at all ready to lead his group of fourth graders through another day of learning.
Randy had been using a wheelchair since his car accident, but he had done everything in his power to avoid taking his ugly wheelchair with him when he went to teach school. After all, a man in his position had the obligation to his students – to appear as “normal” as possible. He had to avoid looking like a "cripple," so he'd awkwardly (and sometimes painfully) balance on his own legs throughout the day in his classroom. It was difficult, but he managed.
Some folks who knew Randy asked him why he was putting himself through the pain. His physical therapist couldn't understand it.
When he would bring it up at home, Norma would look at him scornfully. She would tell him that, if he really wanted to "give in," instead of standing up to his disability like a man, he could do so. Of course, she thought it was a stupid, self-indulgent idea to rely on a wheelchair he really didn’t need. And he didn’t want to become too dependent on it, either.
So Randy left the chair at home for a long two years.
But, in February, after much soul searching and discomfort, Randy made the decision to take the wheelchair with him for the first time to school, hoping the day’s festivities would blunt the unusual happening of seeing a teacher in a wheelchair.
There were too many times when he felt himself ready to fall onto the floor, a frightening experience for the children that he wanted to avoid.
He gave Norma his traditional 12 roses Valentine’s morning, gave her a nervous kiss and then sneaked out the back door to the garage, where he loaded his wheelchair into the trunk of his car.
Randy’s eyelids felt heavy from his lack of sleep as he drove off for school. He found himself trembling at the steering wheel from fear of what might happen when he got there.
But when arrived at work, no one seemed to notice that anything was different about him or that he had brought along a wheelchair – everyone was too busy getting ready for the day ahead of them. And, after all, it was Valentine’s Day.
So Randy wheeled himself right into his classroom where he set up as usual before students started filing in.
The sight of his wheelchair drew nearly every student’s attention – just as he expected. What was that unfamiliar object sitting on wheels in their teacher's room? They poked and prodded it for five minutes until someone finally asked if it belonged to Mr. Jones (Randy). He nodded quietly and thanked them for their curiosity before redirecting their attention back towards academics And they soon were back on task.
That moment changed something inside of Randy. Yes, what he heard from others now and then was actually true. In the big scheme of things, disability doesn’t really matter much or need fixing. It’s simply a part of being human.
It was an insight he needed to share with his students – not with words but by just being who he was.
Some 30 years later as a retiree, Randy wonders why it took so long for him to stand up to his disability and to Norma (his ex). He now recalls that February day as “the Valentine I gave to myself.”
He notes that his current view of physical dependency dovetails with this observation from AJ Withers:
“Chances are, disabled or not, you don’t grow all of your food. Chances are, you didn’t build the car, bike, wheelchair, subway, shoes, or bus that transports you … The difference between the needs that many people with disabilities have and the needs of people who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized.”
Randy’s takeaway tip from his story: Keep your options open as you go through life about what to label “normal.”
Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
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