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Imagine a Disability You Can't See

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from CBC News, Disability Matters, April 11, 2005: www.cbc.ca

What do you think of when someone says the word "disabled"? Most people picture someone in a wheelchair trying to squeeze themselves through a narrow doorway.

Many people, like me, have a disability you can't see. I have a visual impairment and can't see clearly for more than a few feet in front of me. That's why you wouldn't want me behind the wheel of a car. Driving is one of the few things I simply can't do. I still get up in the morning, work as a journalist, buy groceries and line up at the bank. But throughout my day I'm constantly adapting to a world created for people who see better than I do.

Take getting off elevators on the right floor, for example. Most elevators have tiny numbers stretched along the top of the door that light up as the car reaches each floor. I count the floors going by as each number lights up above the door and hope I make it to my destination. But it isn't foolproof. That's where I get a little impromptu exercise running up back stairs.

Nonetheless, most people don't think of me as having a disability. The advantage in that is no one makes assumptions about what I can or can't do. To them, I'm a person first and my disability is a minor detail.

Problem is, people don't tend to realize just how much energy I expend adapting to a world that wasn't designed for me. While I'm able to adapt to most situations, there are times when I can't. Then the responsibility shifts to those around me.

Most people wouldn't question the wisdom of widening doorways and installing ramps for people with mobility impairments. So why not extend the adaptations to people with other types of disabilities? This means trying to adapt activities to include them when their disability might prevent them from joining in.

While travelling in Ireland when I was 24, I set out on a 35-mile cycling trip with six people I had just met at a youth hostel. Although they barely knew me, they were aware that I had a visual impairment.

It soon became obvious to all of us that cycling was not only difficult for me, but also dangerous. My eyes were busy looking for bumps and holes in the road, bushes to the side, and the pack of cyclists ahead. When we found ourselves sharing a narrow stretch of road with cars, that's when the limitations of my disability hit me squarely in the face.

I could manage if cars passed at long intervals, because it meant I only had to concentrate intensely for a moment. But when a stream of cars passed me, the effort was simply too much and I had to get off my bike and walk.

With no discussion, our group split into two packs. Four people sped ahead while two others stayed back and cycled slowly with me. When we stopped for lunch, I told Marie, one of the two who had stayed behind, how badly I felt that I was keeping her from cycling with the others.

Her response was simple and touched me deeply: "My sister has diabetes and is losing her sight. I think it's our responsibility to make sure that she is included in everything we do."

For her, adapting to someone else's disability was second nature. The rest of the group evidently agreed with her, though nothing was said. They knew how exhausted I was from the physical exertion of cycling and the mental gymnastics required to keep me upright.

Over lunch they consulted a map, trying to find a shorter route to make the trip easier for me. When Patricia, another member of the group, said she wanted to ride back to the hostel instead of completing the trip, I realized I had another option. Rather than having the decision made for me, I was given a choice. I thought for a moment while six faces looked at me expectantly. I decided to ride back.

To this day, I'm still touched by their kindness and the way they tried to accommodate me without fanfare, as though it was a perfectly common occurrence. Yet, as someone once commented to me, "We do tend to think that if the person in a wheelchair can fit through the door, that's all we need to worry about."

I wish non-disabled people would remember that we're adapting to their world--one that wasn't made with our needs in mind. For me, adapting is an exercise in creativity that often leads to simple solutions and encourages me to be a creative thinker in all aspects of my life.

Although I've tried dogsledding, ice canoeing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, sea kayaking, hot air ballooning and I love to hike and paddle, I still haven't figured out how to drive a car. The added freedom and independence to get me to new places would be nice. In the meantime, I dream of meeting James--my imaginary driver.

Helena Katz is an award-winning journalist based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Canadian Geographic, Explore, the Globe& Mail, Homemaker's and the Montreal Gazette. She is the author of The Mad Trapper: The Incredible Tale of a Famous Canadian Manhunt.

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