My mother-in-law was sitting outside a store in her power wheelchair drinking a cup of coffee waiting for her ride when a stranger walked by and dropped some coins into her coffee cup. Imagine her surprise! She had no idea she needed help.

The stranger saw the wheelchair, saw the styrofoam cup and acted.

My husband and I were faced with a difficult question after our daughter’s accident. When we finally realized that there was a good chance she’d never walk again we weren’t sure whether to try innovative therapies and do all we possibly could in hopes that she’d regain movement or go back to everyday life of school, activities, homework, and packed weekends. There was a lion in me that wanted to do anything and everything to get my child to walk again. We moved to Michigan and spent months in a progressive physical therapy program. I felt better because I knew I was being a “good” parent, but Arielle played the song, “cause you had a Bad Day” over and over and over again in our small apartment. She missed her friends. She wanted to be a kid. She wanted to do everything her friends were doing. That’s when I realized the hidden message we were sending. You’re not complete unless you’re healed.We were telling her something was wrong with her. As a teacher, I knew this was dangerous. I saw the effects of it firsthand. Students informing me they couldn’t do something because they had____. Parents telling me what their kids weren’t capable of instead of encouraging and believing in their children. I certainly didn’t want to put limitations or labels on my child. I wanted her to believe in herself, dream big, and live the life she wanted. And she is in a world that still sees the wheelchair and not her. Well, except for those who know her.

Most of society, like the person who put coins into my mother-in-law’s coffee, sees the wheelchair and thinks helpless. When I go to school visits, I ask the students to stand up. Then I tell them to sit down. When they’re sitting, I ask them if they’ve changed. Are they a different person than when they were standing. They say no. I explain that people who use wheelchairs are sitting down. There’s usually a resounding “oooh.” The students and some teachers are genuinely surprised because society has taught them that there’s something wrong with people who use wheelchairs. Perhaps a parent told them not to stare when they were little and when they asked questions the parent framed it as the person using the wheelchair is sick–in need of healing or help instead of explaining that people are differently abled and that’s a person (person first) using a wheelchair.

The way we see the world, the way we teach our children to see the world and see themselves is important because it either puts us in a box with boundaries or it opens our mind to possibilities. When my daughter told me I could run a 5K in twenty-two minutes and I told her no way, she responded with telling me that with enough practice and hard work I absolutely could. I had no one to blame, but myself. And while running 3.1 miles in twenty-two minutes is not really important to me the fact that she threw my own lesson back in my face….makes me proud.

Believe in yourself. Teach your children we are all differently abled. It’s not about what’s wrong; it’s about what’s possible!

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