Miller: Looking at the world from a wheelchair
Special to the Tribune
The whole world looks different from the perspective of a person riding in a wheelchair. People pass by with an embarrassed sideways glance, an expression of compassion mingled with audacious curiosity spreading across their faces. When someone talks to you, they are compelled to look down while you are required to look up. The simple act of entering a public building suddenly becomes a complicated maze of back alleys and service corridors. And the places you’ve been to a thousand times take twice the energy to get to both mentally and physically. Sometimes people help too much because they don’t know what you can and can’t do for yourself. Other times people don’t help enough because they don’t want to make you feel helpless.
Of course, there are certain perks that come with a wheelchair, although none of them are worth the price of two strong legs. Even the rudest of people smile at you, hold doors open, and help carry your groceries. A wheelchair does get you the best parking spaces and priority seating on airplanes. Want to avoid the long lines at Disney World? Just trade in your healthy body for a sick one and they’ll scoot you right up to the head of the line at Space Mountain (a fact that is not lost on my teenagers when we visit my family in Florida).
When I was in fifth grade, our teacher gave each student a physical challenge, a “handicap” per se, that we had to live with for a day. The idea started as an empathy building exercise, but became much more than that for a few of us. Some students merely lost a thumb (I dare you to go without using your thumbs for an entire day because it’s a lot harder than it sounds). Some children were blindfolded and spent the day aimlessly wandering around the playground slamming their shins into slides and teeter-totters. We all knew who those students were because they had the bruises to prove it. But the coveted handicap, the physical challenge that every fifth-grader was hoping for, was the wheelchair challenge. For the lucky few, their day would be spent cruising down the school hallways on two wheels. It was what we preteens imagined was the closest thing to driving a car that any of us could get for years to come. For one of those students, the mixture of car and wheelchair was about to be a lifelong collision.
When it comes to driving, every generation has their own public awareness campaign for high school students. For this generation it’s texting while driving, for my generation it was the battle against drunk driving. My senior year, the crumpled and charred remains of a teacher’s car stood on the front lawn of my high school as a testament to how one choice can destroy a life. Only a few months later, I lost a friend to what some guessed was drunk driving and others emphatically declared was nothing more than a tragic, but sober accident. The teenage driver of that car was left paralyzed, traumatized, and forever in a wheelchair. She was one of the classmates that had been blindfolded for a day. Together the two of us convinced one of the “lucky” students in a wheelchair to let us have a turn for a few minutes.
We’ve made progress, but the statistics are staggering. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car crashes are still the leading cause of death among teenagers and a quarter of those involve an underage, intoxicated driver. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the abuse of alcohol kills 4,700 teenagers every year — which is more than the death rate among teens for all illegal drugs combined. Countless more are left crumpled and charred by the injuries and deaths of a family member or friend. As parents and citizens, we simply cannot afford to blindfold ourselves and allow our teenagers to wander aimlessly, without guidance and accountability, around the playground of substance abuse. Our teenagers won’t be sober behind the wheel if we aren’t. They won’t turn off their cell phones if we don’t.
Although my experience in a wheelchair is from illness, not from an accident, I’ve spent far too much time sitting when all I want to do is stand. So please trust me when I say this, these are not the wheels your teenager wants to drive in for the rest of their lives.
— Tiffany Miller is a Tahoe resident and mother. Visit her website at http://mycrayonbox.org.