….by Emma Reyes

Everybody knows the physical consequences of spinal cord injury (SCI); damage to the spinal cord may result in permanent loss of function below the level of injury. However, what do people actually know about a person who is living with SCI? Who do people see when they see a person in a wheelchair? What is their first impression of that person? What is their immediate perception?

As a person living with SCI since the age of two, I have gotten some interesting reactions from people over the years. I have learned that people will do and say whatever’s on their mind — often without any sort of filter. I always get the comment of how “pretty and happy” I look, even though I’m in a wheelchair. I think to myself, “So what? Am I supposed to be ugly and sad just because I’m in a wheelchair?” I want people to know that I am more than just my chair. My wheelchair is simply the tool I use to get around, which makes life a bit easier to navigate.

Granted, my wheelchair is pretty good. With its custom seating and personalized options, it gives me independence. Despite this, my day-to-day is complicated by my SCI. I start my day earlier than most to get ready for the day, because getting ready is not as easy as waking up and go. I need help transferring out of bed and basic daily routines take me longer to do with one arm. In addition, I use public transportation to get around, but that can be a challenge if the elevators are out of service at the Metrorail stations or if there’s inclement weather. The other big factor of using public transportation is I have to plan to leave home earlier to go wherever I need, because Miami public transportation is not reliable.

However, with the right tools and support system, I make it work. I try to make the best of life, even by making fun of myself from time to time, like the off-the-wall comment I make after taking off my shoes, “Ahh, that feels good!”  — even though I cannot feel my feet. Why take life so seriously? Seeing the bright side of life with SCI makes it easier.

Despite my positive attitude, I feel like some people have a hard time seeing past my wheelchair when they look at me. They automatically put me in a box without really getting to know me. Why can’t they see me for who I really am? I wish they could see me: a person with a college degree from a reputable university looking for a job opportunity; a person with aspirations and a future. I just want the opportunity to show who I really am and what I have to offer.

I was a little girl learning to take my first steps in life when I was injured, and, in an instant, my life changed dramatically. I had to readjust to life with a SCI, and learn how to not run people over with my chair. I had to develop tough skin to grow up in a world that is not so nice to people who look different… in a world where it’s hard to be seen for more than just wheels or a person with one arm. Proving myself to the world can get exhausting, yes, but I take a deep breath, give myself a little pep talk, lift my head, and move forward.

I understand that some people still see me as a little girl who needs protection. But, I want the world to see me for who I really am – a woman with big dreams, love to give, a voice that wants to be heard, and a desire to contribute to society.  If people could take a step back, they might just see me, and not my chair. So, I ask that the next time you see somebody in a wheelchair – please, take a breath, ignore the chair, and try to see the person for who they really are – you might be surprised by the hidden strength and value they have.