When Disabled Does Mean Unable

Julie Marsh

julie marshI collected stamps as a child. One US design I remember well was the "disabled doesn't mean unable" issue -- a man in a yellow shirt, seated in a wheelchair, bent over a microscope.

Years later, I graduated from a local state university where the entire campus was handicap accessible. Knowing that was a point of pride for the school, I often thought about it as I made my way to classes and events across the campus, noting that in fact, anyone on wheels could reach those same locations with ease.

The image on the stamp and the thoughtful design of my college campus resonated with me then and remain with me now. Physical and mental limitations exist among all of us. They vary widely and aren't always readily apparent. We're often surprised by what others can and have done.

Unfortunately, most of the world isn't laid out like Wright State University, and many people don't consider the needs of those whose minds and bodies work in unexpected ways.

When Tanner Bawn -- with his mother Chrissie and aunt Catherine -- landed at JFK last week and discovered that his wheelchair was inoperable, he was rendered unable.

Even with a wheelchair, New York renders persons with disabilities unable to reach the same destinations as those of us who can walk. Ever try to get around New York without tackling stairs? It's impossible. I spent two pregnancies in New York and would happily walk 30 blocks to avoid climbing 30 stairs.

Faced with a child like Tanner, his story, and his mother's story, people will do amazing and wonderful things. Catherine has tweeted repeatedly that her heart is exploding from the kindness shown to her beloved nephew. It's incredibly gratifying to realize that these combined efforts will make Tanner's last wish a reality.

It's also terribly sad to realize how many people are rendered unable by thoughtlessness. Whether it's poor design or unfair assumptions or an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and accommodate others' needs, few people can see the barriers we've erected. It's only when we're touched personally by a story like Tanner's that we recognize them.

Among my social media circles, we're touched personally every day. Catherine began writing about Tanner over four years ago. Tanis Miller -- the Redneck Mommy -- has shared her joys and struggles and grief. Her humor and generosity of spirit have inspired thousands. Hundreds of special needs communities have flourished, supporting families along their journeys and educating parents of neurotypical kids.

The offline world, not so much. Only when a story like Tanner's makes it onto CNN do most people sit up and take notice.

My challenge to readers of The Stir this week: For every step you take outside your own home, think about whether someone like Tanner could reach the same destinations that you do. Look for elevators and ramps. Notice the width of hallways and whether handicap accessible restrooms and parking exist. Consider the additional time required for every outing when it's done on wheels.

And then go home and run a mile and be grateful that you are able.


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