At the end of each physical therapy session, I get ice and electric stimulation on my shoulder. I lie on my back on one of the tables with my knees bent and my head propped up, and they have posters on the wall for people to look at, posters that I’m sure they perceive as being helpful, if they think about them at all.
Like this one:
If you can’t read it, it says (I have it memorized), “Life’s only limitations are those we make.”
Please. Life is full of limitations that we didn’t make for ourselves, and carrying a surfboard in the early morning sun has absolutely nothing to do with either the sentiment or its patent ridiculousness. Not to mention that, for me, a picture of someone with two normal, perfect shoulders is almost as upsetting as the sentiment.
Today in the Post, there is yet another feel-good story of perseverance-despite-disability clickbait next to some anti-clickbait about Ukraine, this one about a girl who opted to have her club feet amputated so she could be fitted with below-the-knee prosthetics, and how she now goes rock-climbing and performs in an Irish dance troupe, and claims she wants to “defy what society thinks about what is possible.” A doctor who works at fitting amputees with prosthetics claims that a number of his patients are paralympians, referencing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who “didn’t want to accept any limits.”
Good. Good for all of them. They don’t know how lucky they are. I know it’s in poor taste for someone to refer to amputees as “lucky,” but I need to draw a line in the sand here. That girl is the exception, not the rule. The reason “society” thinks competitive hiking isn’t “possible” for people with prosthetics isn’t because of the prosthetics. It’s because it’s so physically demanding that most normal people would have trouble, no matter what kind of feet they have. I want to grab that girl by the shoulders and shake her. She’s not making the world a shinier, happier place, with her neon sneakers and sock collection (socks but no feet – isn’t it cute how perverse she is?), perpetuating the fiction that perseverance always yields results.
There is a very small subset of human beings with the genetic gifts that allow them to become high performance athletes. Some among that subset have disabilities. However, and I cannot make this point often enough, most people, disabled or not, are not in that category. Most of those same people, however, like to think that they could be if they just put forth the effort. They read stories about a war vet who competes professionally in some sport or another with a prosthetic appendage or two, and they relate right in. They think of themselves as the same plucky, courageous type, who would also emerge from the cocoon of a birth defect or an IED as a glorious butterfly with gleaming, prosthetic wings.
But for every person who goes rock climbing with prosthetic feet, there are thousands more who put their feet to far more prosaic uses, like, say, going to work. (Or, more likely these days, standing in an unemployment line.) These people are not going to go kayaking with their prosthetic elbows, they are not going to set a new land speed record with their prosthetic hips, and they are definitely not going to do wheelchair marathons.
What’s most frustrating of all is that their lives are no less spectacular for that, despite the fact that they aren’t attractive, they aren’t athletic, and they don’t have an inspiring story that lends itself to a three-minute closer for primetime news. For most people with disabilities, the simple fact that they can function nearly as well as people without them is what is truly amazing.
Such functioning is the result of at least as much effort as that girl puts in to her twelve-mile hikes. But most of that effort goes on behind the scenes, in doctors’ and therapists’ offices, or at home with families who see the pain, the medications, and who have installed the ramps and lifts and bars in their houses so their loved ones can function by themselves. It doesn’t make for pretty pictures or uplifting news articles. But it is, in a way, even more heroic because of it. The amount of work that goes into “normal” is all the more laudable when it is invisible. You don’t get a medal for being able to walk to and from a bus stop, no matter the effort it took to get there.
So the next time you read a story about elective amputation, instead of thinking, “wow, that is totally me,” perhaps you ought to be grateful that it isn’t you. Handicaps are not superpowers, you are not just like them, and whatever you do now is closer to the upper rather than lower boundary of your talents and abilities. Most of us are not sparkling butterflies but dull, unpretty moths, going about doing our pollinating when no-one is paying attention.
The unseen effort that goes into the mundane – now, that is something worthy of our admiration.