I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal independence and how it means different things for different people. We’ve crossed this incredible turning point in our parenting development with Geoff being able to take our kids places alone without the threat of one of them running away or getting some place “inaccessible”where he might not be able to keep them safe. We live in a beautiful place where so much is accessible to our family, a place where adaptive programs like Eastern Adaptive Sports and New England Disabled Sports and Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country bring hundreds of people year around to town for recreational opportunities like skiing, waterskiing, cycling, fishing, etc. Yet, there are still places locally Geoff cannot take our kids by himself due to accessibility issues, places without ramps or with bathroom doors too narrow to pass his wheelchair through. And while this irritates me more than Geoff, I’ve chosen on this day of independence to celebrate all that we can access easily as a family. Fortunately, we also have very creative and strong friends, willing to test boundaries and problem solve with us when it comes to accessing the inaccessible. Four years ago, adaptive slip ‘n sliding was born in our backyard because our little boy (not Geoff) was (and still is) obsessed with throwing his little body on slippery plastic. My brother, Greg, and our friend, Matt, and Geoff brainstormed the “slingshot method” for persons whose legs do not work but wish to also feel the freedom of rocketing down slippery plastic on hot July 4th holidays.
The kids loved watching so much this year they too wanted to be slingshotted down the course with their friends. Of course, friends are needed to do the bulk of the pulling, but then kids and adults alike are laughing and wondering if they too should give it a whirl. As someone who insists on making a few independent runs on the slip n slide each summer to prove I still can, I’m a big fan of the sling shot because there is no danger of injury except the occasional grass burn if moving too fast to stop when the plastic ends.
But it seems like a no brainer to me with some old fashioned ingenuity, any place can be made accessible to those folks using wheels to get around. Being independent means being able to take one’s young child into ANY store or place of business in ANY town in America and not having to wait outside because your wife or partner can’t bump you up the steps alone. We have great restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses along with some of the most supportive, caring, and give you the shirt of their back kind of people in our two- town community, made slightly less great, because we cannot roll into them easily as a family. Feeling independent is the ability to take your children on a walk without putting them in danger– or a drive because they can now click in and out of their carseats INDEPENDENTLY. Being “able” to work and finding the right people to employ you, regardless of your disability, contributes wholeheartedly to a sense of independence. Being independent means having a choice about what place to have an ice cream based on the quality of the ice cream or ambience of the location– not determined by whether they have a ramp or not.
Geoff and other athletes who utilize wheelchairs have hiked mountains like Lafayette and trails like Lonesome Lake with their friends, not to prove to others that it was possible- not to be inspirations to other people or to end up on the cover of a newspaper; but rather to enjoy the climb, to be outside– to be like other hikers, picking the best line to travel, pushing limits, and finding ways to seek the views the rest of the world may take for granted. To be able to find a sport or activity again like waterskiing or fishing or cycling contributes to a person’s ability to thrive despite disability. This is independence even when relying on others to help along the way.
So, today, one day after our nation’s celebration of independence, think about your own independence and maybe that of someone else. Think about how you might be able to make something more accessible for people. We don’t boycott places as a matter of principle based on their lack of accessibility, but I do hate to leave Geoff outside or in the car while we run inside somewhere; nor do we always like to make a scene trying to enter a place safely. Thank you to all of those friends and strangers alike who offer a hand or a strong back in those tricky places. But at home in our backyard, even a dad with a spinal cord injury can enjoy a cool slip n slide on a hot day in July.