I suddenly became disabled 7 1/2 years ago, as a result of complications following a successful kidney-pancreas transplant that certainly has extended my life and allowed me to enjoy a family life that started in middle age. Initially, I considered the fact I could no longer walk only a minor irritant to my ability to continue with my daily social activities and my job as a journalist. Until this summer.
Over the past several years, I have made tremendous progress, going from a wheelchair to walker to crutches. The differences between my old life and my new one had gone unexamined. Paradoxically enough, I now realize I consciously avoided such self-evaluation as a form of denial, thus underplaying the changes in this new, challenging phase of my adult life.
My loved ones were extremely careful in their language and actions relating to my disability. The word "disabled" or "handicapped" was avoided at all times, despite the handicapped parking placard displayed in our cars, despite my using handicapped designated seating in theaters. Their silence compounded mine, and so we went ahead with life, avoiding social events in which one has to "work a room," as well as the beaches and golf and tennis resorts that had been the prime source of relaxation for all of us.
I'd heard of the indignities faced by the disabled. My job as a reporter gave me the opportunity to cover some of those issues dealing with professional and college sports matters covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). But it is another thing entirely to face them in the "first-person singular."
For me, the most striking fact is the two extremes of people's attitudes when they are in the presence of a disabled person. They either ignore you entirely and, in many cases, are so oblivious that they might even cause you to stumble, or they stare as in disbelief, as if pondering their own good fortune at not being on your legs.
Another striking reality I've discovered is that there still are many people, including those who are allegedly trained in the matter by corporate America, who don't know what the ADA is all about. That's what was brought home to me this past summer, on a trip to Boston.
When I arrived in Boston, I went to pick up a rental car I'd reserved from a large national agency. To my dismay, the shuttle running from the terminal to the agency's lot was not equipped to facilitate my boarding. There I was, facing three steep steps. Instantly I realized I couldn't climb them. This realization was tremendously important, because it made me aware of my physical limitations more acutely than ever before. I hadn't been challenged this way before.
It was very unlike me, but I found myself asking for assistance. Soon enough, I could feel the driver lifting me under the arms while a skycap hoisted me at the hips. The image and reflection in a mirror, still with me months later, could have been of a piece of luggage being loaded onto the bus. Welcome to DisabilityLand, where I was about to have several other encounters on the way to understanding and accepting my limited mobility.
Once I was at the agency itself, an automatic sliding door ignored my slow walking and knocked me over--hard. And here comes the moment when, for the very first time, I accepted that all I have lived, seen, heard and learned has been from an "able" person's perspective, intuition and awareness. It was time to adjust my mind-set. I had been arming myself with state-of-the-art physical therapy but with the mentality of an "able" person. Now, finally, I was accepting vulnerability without reservations.
I'm freer now. I don't take unnecessary chances to show I'm an "able" person, and I move carefully. But most important, I'm aware every second that I am the only person accountable for my security and well-being. I have started to advocate for disability rights, which I hadn't done before. I have broken my hibernating bear imitation. I'm leaving my "comfort zone," to dare living life to its fullest.
Mark Asher is a sportswriter for The Post.