Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Physically Challenged: Humbling Experience, Huge Learning

By Rita Wuebbeler - 01.24.2014


I recently spent almost seven weeks not being able to put weight on my left knee due to a minor bicycle accident where I fractured a small bone in my knee joint.

It turned out to be a small accident with a huge impact. When I received the diagnosis from my orthopedist along with her casual “you need crutches” at the beginning of October, all I could think of were the numerous trips I had scheduled in the next two months.

I was planning to teach classes or give presentations at international conferences in far-off places, including Estonia, Germany and Canada. I almost panicked but then decided to get practical. What did I have to do to still be able to travel and teach?

I had to ask for help! I became an expert user of the airlines’ (and AMTRAK’s) wheel chair assistance services and relied on the helping hands of many fellow travelers and hotel staff when trying to maneuver stairs, steps and other “barriers.”

So, no big deal, right? Using crutches and a wheel chair is an “inconvenience” but at least it’s only temporary, right?

Right! However, the experience of being “temporarily” physically challenged was humbling and has taught me some important lessons:

Asking for help comes with challenges.

I had to rely so much on certain friends and colleagues, especially while traveling and co-facilitating, that it temporarily changed and affected our relationship. Even though I became pretty good at asking for help, it still “did a number on me” and made me feel insecure and “too demanding” at times.

People’s perception of you changes.

After having been pushed around airports in a wheel chair by friendly airline staff a few times and the initial feeling of relief and excitement wearing off, I realized that people looked at me with different eyes when I was in a wheel chair. Some simply would not see me since I was not on their “level” when I tried to address them. Others would talk to me more loudly or slow down their speech as if I couldn’t understand them.

Being physically challenged impacts all parts of you.

Of course, I expected this physical “limitation” to be challenging, especially from a practical and logistical point of view. However, I was still surprised at how vulnerable, weak, unstable and unsure of myself I felt on the emotional side. Teaching from a wheel chair for five days in Germany was hugely challenging. If it hadn’t been for my co-facilitator who “had my back” during the program, I might have given up.

It all worked out in the end. The fracture healed, and I am able to walk without crutches again (but no hikes up to Machu Picchu yet).

2 Responses so far

Thanks for the perspective of being temp disabled. Language and labels have profound impact on our perceptions/misperceptions of others. I suggest physically challenged yet still quite ABLED! Too often in society the focus is on the ‘dis’ not the ‘abled.’
Our aging baby boomer population means more people with a range of challenges that naturally comes with getting older. A potential employee with decades of experience, knowledge, wisdom is a tremendous asset to your organization, why not hire them.

Thank you so much for this perspective. It is really an eye opening experience to not only put yourself in someone else’s shoes but to be put there against your will. It truly makes you aware of the struggles and hardships that others endure on a daily basis. I especially appreciated the point that your disability was temporary. This is not a privilege that many are able to experience. Their difference defines them for life.

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