Change can be terrifying. I think this is resonant and true across all walks of life. As a disabled person, I find things changing around and within me constantly, but I often forget that there are so many others going through the exact same things.
Recently, I was reminded of that fact after a moment of human connection that sparked a resonant viral Twitter thread, and it started in the women’s bathroom at a movie theater. As a younger person with mobility aids, I’m often stared at. I am frequently approached by strangers with invasive questions, and I’ve learned to brace myself when someone approaches me, which is what happened while I was standing in line for the accessible stall. I saw her out of the corner of my eye, an older woman leaving the line and coming towards me. I went through all the possible uncomfortable things that could possibly be about to happen until she stopped in front of me.
She paused. And then she asked, “How long have you been using a cane?” Not the question I was expecting. “Almost 10 years,” I hesitantly replied.
And then she looked me in the eye and said, “Was it hard?”
We often expect elders to know better than us, to have more experience and answers than us, and I looked at this woman and I recognized fear, vulnerability, waiting to be rebuffed. And I knew exactly what she was asking. She was in the same place I was eight years ago, just before I started using my cane. She wanted to know if she was alone. She wanted reassurance.
“Yeah. It was terrifying,” I told her. “It took face planting in a Walmart parking lot for me to accept that I needed help, and even then it was hard.”
We ended up talking for a good several minutes, just standing by the sinks. She told me about her instability and vertigo, how it was mortifying and scary to have to ask strangers for help, but even worse to admit that she needed to make a change. I think that’s something that almost all people who use mobility aids can relate to, regardless of how old they are. Choosing to move forwards with a mobility aid ― a wheelchair, walker, cane or crutches ― is a moment of intense vulnerability. It’s stepping off of a precipice and not knowing what’s going to happen. Do I leap? Do I fall? Who do I become now? How will this change me?
I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I struggle with joint dislocation and chronic pain, among other symptoms, and I started using a cane at age 19 or 20. I started using a wheelchair off and on at 21. I’m now 28, and I’m still making changes and adjustments to the way I interact with the world to accommodate my needs. In the beginning I fought it tooth and nail, telling myself, “It’s not that bad. I’m not that disabled.” But I was. I am. I remember so vividly that night in the parking lot, with my mouth full of gravel and pavement. That was the moment I realized something needed to give. I picked myself up, and I walked into that store, and I bought my first cane then and there. I still have that cane.
But why is it so hard to bite the bullet and get a mobility aid? What holds us back? It’s fear and vulnerability. Fear of vulnerability. Being stigmatized and stared at. It feels like giving in and giving up, and admitting to the world that something is wrong with you. It feels like a loss of control.
It feels that way, but it’s not. People often say “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a chair,” because they view disability as a prison or punishment. They think that a cane or chair is something to be ashamed of, or that we must live such terrible lives because they differ so vastly from able-bodied people’s experiences. Yet mobility aids help us regain our control, our independence. They don’t bring the despondence and rejection we expect, but freedom. They enable strolls with friends, trips to the mall, walks with the dog. They bring joy.
The woman in the theater bathroom and I talked for a few minutes about that fear of the unknown, ironically, in a place where we all try to ignore each other as much as possible. She left feeling a bit more confident in the decision to use a cane, at least I hope.
After I posted about this interaction, thousands of people chimed in with their own experiences. There was a tidal wave of connection between strangers, also caught in the isolation that fear often brings us. Thousands of people discussing how hard it had been for them reached out to share their stories, and thousands of people in the middle of that same crisis reached back for reassurance.
One moment of connection over canes in a bathroom led to a movement of disabled people coming together, showing each other that change doesn’t have to be scary. That it’s time to move through and accept help. To revel in the joy they found, to reassure those that were still afraid to make the leap.
Disability is so stigmatized that we don’t even realize how deeply we internalize it. A refrain I hear a lot is “not disabled enough.” “I’m not disabled enough for a walker. I’m not disabled enough for crutches.” But what does that even mean? If you need the aid, you need it. There’s no such thing as “disabled enough.” There’s no need to prove to others what you choose to do with your body. There is only what you need. Reclaiming your body is hard. Moving through that fear takes work, but it is so worth it.
I don’t want to call it “life after fear” because I won’t lie: The fear never fully goes away. I’ve caught myself minimizing my own problems because I’m still dismissing my own needs… but it can be life beyond fear. Beyond the fear is joy and friendship, connection with other disabled people, freedom to live a life of independence. A moment of vulnerability can make all the difference to someone else, and trying to live authentically as yourself can help others to gain the confidence to do so as well.
So yes, it is terrifying to jump off the edge into the unknown. And embracing vulnerability takes bravery and courage, but beyond that? There’s a whole life of possibilities. Trust yourself to take the leap into the unknown — to embrace that vulnerability and find joy and freedom.