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When I Feel Vulnerable as a Person With a Disability

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I have been a wheelchair user with a disability for seven years now, and I have grown accustomed to life as it is in my new body. I feel confident in my ability to navigate the world and accomplish most things I set my sights on. There are times when something is inaccessible or I feel discriminated against, but for the most part, I live happily independently and autonomously. There is only one aspect of this new existence that I have not become comfortable with, and am constantly surprised by: being vulnerable.

When I was able-bodied, I was strong, tough and had quick reflexes. I studied Tae Kwon Do as a young adult and obtained a red belt. I learned Tae Chi and various styles of physical training while in university. I could walk down a dark street at night, confident that I could defend myself if attacked. I could stand on a crowded bus, confident I could escape or fight if trouble broke out. I could be alone with someone, confident I would not be easily taken advantage of. None of this is true now, and it makes me feel nervous and anxious in a way I’m unaccustomed to.

If you’ve had your wheelchair grabbed or been touched without permission, you probably know that ugly feeling I’m talking about. The sudden electric zap of alarm that lances through the belly. That surge of adrenaline that floods body parts which are incapable of reacting. The cold sweat that breaks out when I realize I can neither fight nor flee. It only lasts a moment, and most times there’s no need to be worried. But it catches me off guard every time, and makes me acutely and uncomfortably aware of just how vulnerable I’ve become.

I also have PTSD from my extended hospital internment. Months spent confined to a bed and swimming in medication has left me with claustrophobia, an adversity to crowds and knee-jerk emotional reactions that fly beyond my control. Someone leaning on and vibrating my chair in a full elevator can send me into a anxiety attack. A stranger patting me on the shoulder can startle me and trigger a PTSD rage.

I’ve never been much of a fighter. I don’t particularly like it, and I don’t like harming people. But I did like that I knew how to fight, and felt confident that I could defend myself if necessary. Since becoming a wheelchair user with frozen shoulders, that confidence has fled, and the more often I am touched without permission, the more my vulnerability is hammered home. I think that is one of the main reasons why grabbing someone’s chair without permission is so offensive. Aside from being a violation of someone’s personal space, it inflicts a small psychological trauma on people who already feel vulnerable. The same goes for when people stand too close or lean over (and even on) me. My wheelchair is my freedom, but it can also be my cage if I become trapped or unable to extricate myself from a situation.

My life will never be the same as it was. I have accepted that and learned to thrive in spite of it. I will never get my black belt or get cast in an action film, and that’s OK. But I do want what everyone else wants. I want to feel calm, I want to feel free, and I want to feel safe.

This story originally appeared on A Day in the Life of a PWD.

Getty image by Canaran.

Originally published: February 26, 2019
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