This spring break, I had the pleasure of making some cool new friends. That’s always nice.
One of them sent me a message a few days later that started with these exact words: When I first met you, as crazy as this sounds, I didn't really notice that you were in a wheelchair... I mean not literally speaking... I saw you in it, but I didn't get that “I’m different” vibe at all.
Earlier that day, I also had a talk in front of a sizable audience where I described different situations and had the audience give input on potential appropriate/inappropriate reactions. It wasn’t until the very end of the Q&A session at the end of my talk that someone even asked about my wheelchair or my situation.
After the new friend asked me several more questions, I started pondering her initial statement and our encounter. I replayed in my head the other recent friendships that have developed and my various interactions.
I remember when the wheelchair was still new for me (and my friends/family), I felt pretty awkward—and I don’t mean the awkward feeling I enjoy making other people feel. I just always felt that people were watching me and judging me when I was out at places. A friend tried telling me that I was probably just being a little paranoid, but I disagreed with him at the time.Thinking back to the things I said and did the year after my accident while in the hospital and at home and even during my first year of medical school, I’m kind of embarrassed.
When I think back to things that happened years ago before my accident, I always imagine them from the viewpoint of the wheelchair, for some odd reason.
Is this who I've become?
One employee in the hospital who had been in a wheelchair for many years told us about meeting new people and said, “My wheelchair is the least interesting thing about me.” I remember when she said that, I scoffed and thought she was just being super optimistic. “Come on, that can’t be true,” I thought.
But if you ask me now, I’ll tell you that she’s right. I’m not sure if it’s because I have gotten used to this and have just stopped feeling awkward and self-conscious, or that people—not just my friends—have stopped noticing me as being different. I can definitely see that my classmates and faculty members don’t see me as being different anymore. The fact that I feel new people don’t see me as being out of the ordinary may be due to a combination of my changed perceptions and their views when they see me.
I feel like the “novelty” of being a wheelchair has worn off. I’m not “that guy” anymore.
Is this why funding for spinal cord injury research is always lacking—because it’s not as flashy, in-your-face noticeable anymore? I mean, it’s not AIDS or cancer, but it still completely changes the lives of 11,000 new people in the United States each year(1).
People see the injury’s physical manifestations, but they don’t see the struggle. They don’t see the adaptations. They don’t see the sacrifices.
After all this time, I guess now I’m just me; I’m just Hammad. I’m not the “Hammad who’s in a wheelchair”. Well, I don’t know about other people, but at least I think of myself as “just Hammad” without any strings attached.
1. Spinal Cord Injury Information Pages. Last updated 02/14/2012. Accessed 03/17/2012.http://www.sci-info-pages.com/facts.html.