About a month ago, I was invited to give a talk about what beauty means to someone with a disability at Estee Lauder. It was gut-wrenching to tell this to 80 people but I did it!
‘They’ say that time heals all wounds. I wonder if ‘they’ know that there are wounds that never recover, that injure you much deeper than scars. It was about 6pm and I was making my way to meet a friend for dinner when I stepped into an escalator that was under maintenance but had no safety barricade. My third step on the escalator had a missing cover so I fell into the tracks and fractured my rib, dislocated my hip and worst of all, I broke my spine. I remember lying at the bottom of the steps calling for help and it took a few moments before help came. They had to cut the steel bars to get me out of the escalator.
I woke up in ICU and the doctor told me that I was lucky to be alive because I had lost more than a litre of blood. My family slowly broke the news to me that the doctor said that I only had 3 to 5% chances of walking again. My entire life changed in an instance and the hopes and dreams I had dissipated before me. They went on to explain to me that when I broke my spine, my nerves were affected. The nerves in your spinal cord work like a communication channel to your brain and my nerves were severed from the accident. Generally, nerves have limited ability to regenerate. I could try to move or feel my legs but it would be like making a phone call on a broken telephone, no one would answer.
This disability affected more than my ability to walk. I lost my independence, my friends, my identity. Who am I if I am not able to do the things I love?
I went through a long phase struggling between hopes and fears. Things that used to be second nature suddenly became a mammoth’s task. I needed help with very basic things like showering, toileting, dressing and going out.
Every day I prayed for a miracle, that one day, I could walk again. Other people have dreams of being famous, rich or successful but what I wanted was something they already have, the ability to walk. The thing about dreams is that when you can’t actualize them, they can make your reality a living nightmare.
I was the kind of person who enjoyed long walks and loved adventure. I loved jumping off the jetty, bathing in the sea and waiting for sunset, walking in the dark to catch fireflies, or climbing a waterfall. These to me were immense beauty. It broke me that so many of these things required me to be able to use my legs.
I would never be able to experience these as I once did. It made me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong because there is a difference between seeing something beautiful from afar and being able to experience it.
The breaking point for me happened when everything was falling apart and it was becoming more apparent that recovery wasn’t going to happen on my terms. I needed to redefine what recovery meant and move on with my life. It boiled down to two options. I could be sad and it would be a certainty that I would lead a long and miserable life or I could embrace the unknown and have a higher probability of being happy.
I had to learn that with most things, it is a matter of perspective. I could be in the most beautiful place on earth yet it would be forgettable if I did not seize the moment. It is the moments we make and share that allows them to be stories that we remember.
Recently, I went to Iceland with my husband and a few friends. I realised that the moments that were memorable were the ones with stories to tell, like how we worked together to get me up and down a hill that was snowed in, or how we cooked together every night, or how I missed my flight back.
I would have never believed that a girl on wheelchair went to Iceland and came back. A lot of places can generally be inaccessible for a person with a physical disability and it would help if things were built with us in mind. But for now, a little bit of planning, a little bit of help, and a leap of faith helps.
When you are pushed into difficult situations, you have an opportunity to learn that there's so much you are capable of.
We judge ourselves by the reflection we see in the mirror, but what is really reflected is the sum of our thoughts, feelings and stories. It is fair to say that you need to be able to see your own beauty before others.
There is a stigma with regards to people with disabilities. Oftentimes, we are portrayed in the media as people who require charity from others. While I agree that we need advocacy and support from the government and society, the charity case overshadows the bigger issue, which is about empowerment. Empowering people with disabilities begins with making things more accessible, this could mean making infrastructures usable for everybody.
I recently watched an advertisement about a girl who uses a wheelchair. It was an advertisement for Apple Watch. In that advertisement, she talked about how she doesn't see everyday people in her life, like her teacher or her doctor or her salesperson, on a wheelchair. How does she know she is accepted in society, if she does not see people like her around her? This is an experience that I could personally relate to.
It would take time for people's opinions to change and the best way you can help people with disabilities is to include us. When you allow us into your world, you help us expand our possibilities. Talk to us if you want to know. Employ us. Engage us. This way, you can begin to empower us.
- love and light, adrenalene