Owning it

Posted by Kristin Beale in Life After Paralysis on February 24, 2020 # Lifestyle

By guest author Kristin Beale

In the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I was in a Jet Ski accident that left me paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and thrown into a completely new world of disability.

There were two ways I could have looked at it:

1. My accident happened at the perfect time because my youthful body and schedule allowed me to optimize my rehabilitation in the initial and ongoing months after my accident; or

2. The timing of my injury was terrible because it added another element to an already difficult time in a teenager’s life.

High school, especially the first years, is typically where kids become more independent, start to establish goals for adulthood and, if they’re lucky, fall in love. In my case, my independence regressed me to that of an elementary school kid; my goals switched from “get into college,” to “just sit up in my wheelchair for 2 hours;” and I didn’t have time to even think about boys, much less go on a date with one.

Kristin BealeMy disability owned me, instead of the other way around. My journey of getting to that “other way around” point was, make no mistake, a very long one.

I was convinced that if I wasn’t in a wheelchair, all my problems would be fixed, and life would be easy. All of my efforts were focused on blending in and looking “normal,” as defined by my able-bodied peers. I spent so much effort distancing myself from the disabled community and not accepting accommodations out of fear of being viewed as less, that I didn’t take time to learn to love myself in the state I was in.

Why does everyone care so much about being “normal?” Shouldn’t we want to stand out, instead of becoming a face in a crowd of look-alikes?

I have that perspective now, thanks to either my self-confidence that came with maturity, or my acceptance of my disability, but good grief. It did not come easily, and it did come in its own time.

In the beginning, the ultimate compliment was when someone told me they “forgot” I was in a wheelchair, or they “just don’t see me as disabled.” When someone said that, I felt like I succeeded in blending in and masking what I thought was the worst part of myself. I thought that meant they were really seeing me, instead of seeing “girl in wheelchair.” When I think about it now, a couple of words come to mind: ashamed, insecure, unsteady.

There’s no “How To” guide for finding your confidence and owning your disability -- there are just things that I can say helped me and changed my adjectives to: unashamed, confident, stable. They are:

  • Look at yourself in the mirror. No matter what your opinion truly is, tell yourself you’re beautiful (or handsome). Sometimes I speak that to myself out loud and I definitely sound like a loony, but cheers to living alone. The more you tell yourself that truth, the closer you are to believing it. The power of words is real.
  • Use the ammunition of your disability to connect to others. I love to tell the story of my accident because people can either relate to it, draw strength from it, or just be interested in hearing it. I’ve made friends like this, I’ve gotten dates like this, and I’ve had some great conversations like this. The dates turned out weird, but the friends and conversations were worth it.
  • Realize how cool it is to stand out. To a degree, everyone looks the same. Girls my age, most of them have straight, brunette hair, long legs, and standing up. I might have straight brunette hair and long legs, but I’m more easily remembered because of my wheelchair. This is a benefit for making friends and becoming a “local” at restaurants and companies. At this point, the employees at the library, bank, post office, and a local sushi restaurant remember who I am. That hasn’t resulted in any perks beyond a “good to see you, Kristin” yet, but maybe one day it will.
  • If nothing else, just enjoy the good parking and concert seating. We get to butt in line at the airport, too. Milk it.

There are disadvantages of being disabled, of course, but, in my opinion, there are way more benefits. Disabled or not, we all need to go through a period of accepting and loving ourselves so that we’ll treat our bodies with the enthusiasm and respect we deserve. Our disability gives us a story to tell, something to set us apart, and a reason to not be “normal.”

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of a book, Greater Things, and a comic book, Date Me. Check them out and read an excerpt at www.kristinbeale.com. Her comics can be found on Instagram @greater.things.comics .