89: Disabilities Can Teach Us How to Live

89: Disabilities Can Teach Us How to Live

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Disabilities Can Teach Us How to Live

It matters if you just don’t give up.

~Stephen W. Hawking

At first it can be difficult to imagine living the rest of your life with a brain injury. As a neurologist and medical director of a rehabilitation hospital, I see many people with brain injuries, some mild and many much worse. I frequently hear my able-bodied friends say that they don’t think they could live with a severe disability. But they are viewing an uncertain future through the prism of their current situation. For the last forty years, I have worked with people with brain injuries. Both they and their families have taught me a great deal about how to live and how to move forward in their new lives.

My patients are terrific examples that should allay my friends’ unfounded fears. Immediately after their injuries, survivors may be unable to move their arms or legs, breathe without the help of a ventilator, or perform the most intimate routines without someone’s help. But, as time passes, and with the help of rehabilitation, family, and friends, they go on to live in “their now.” While it is not an easy path to travel, it is one that millions of people take every day.

At one time or another, all of us ask ourselves what represents quality in our lives. On a bad day, it may seem like there is little quality, while other days are filled with great joy. The truth is that most of the things that enrich and provide quality in our lives are the same for able-bodied individuals and for people with disabilities. But at first, able-bodied friends may have difficulty seeing it that way. If you or a loved one is disabled, they need your help. Many people assume that someone with a severe disability couldn’t possibly have the same dreams and aspirations that they do.

Think about it. One minute you are an able-bodied young woman, strong and leading a normal life. Then, in a split second a car accident leaves you severely disabled. Did your dreams, aspirations and the things that brought you joy change? No, the dreams are there, but the ability to achieve them is more difficult. You may need to make some adjustments, but it is important that you maintain active goals.

When people think about living with a severe disability, they focus on the physical aspects of the disability. Healthcare professionals are quite good at helping people compensate for their physical impairments, but the real challenge is in areas we rarely think about.

Say you have a group of friends who will go out to lunch or meet you for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Now, after your brain injury, the pool of people willing to have that cup of coffee may have narrowed. Inside your head, you may feel like the same person, but your friends may have a hard time figuring out how to interact with you. Your peer group initially visits you, but over time they may stop calling you. This is an opportunity to be the teacher, and to educate them about your disability and how to maintain a relationship. You have to become more proactive in reaching out to those friends. Make a list of your friends and call them once a week. Invite them to come over to your house or to go out for that cup of coffee. Don’t wait for them to call you.

There is a great deal of attention given to maintaining social networks for the elderly, but the same is true for people with disabilities. You and your family must make the extra effort to maintain a social network that may now, hopefully, include other brain injury survivors and their families. At first you may resist interacting with other people with disabilities, but they have walked in your shoes and will have invaluable advice.

There is another opportunity to form rewarding relationships. At work, you interacted with your peer group, developed social relationships and found ways to get recognition. You may not be able to return to your previous job or any kind of work, but you will still benefit from interacting with other people. Think about starting out as a volunteer. You might even contact the hospital where you went for your rehabilitation. It is a place where both you and the staff will feel comfortable dealing with your brain injury.

Don’t become insulated in your own disability. How can you prevent this? When people ask how they can help, be candid. Early on, when you are in the hospital, you and your family may not need their help. But when you get home you may need transportation or just someone to chat with. Let people know that they should volunteer again when you get home. I know families that make out a schedule and ask people if they can write in their name for a specific date and time. How about Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m.?

Finally, we all think about our future prospects. No matter how good our lives are at the moment, we like to think about our next vacation, going out to dinner, or something as simple as our plans with our children for the next weekend—maybe the beach.

Catastrophic injuries and illnesses may bring a sudden halt to an individual’s or family’s plans. Once the initial part of rehabilitation is complete, we as your rehabilitation providers need to provide you with a “prescription” that will allow you to make a successful transition into areas that give you an optimistic future. It is not always easy to align your future with your abilities. Try to make plans that give you something to look forward to, no matter how small or trivial it may seem. It may be as simple as planning to go out to dinner and a movie while putting off your goal of going to Disney World until next year.

These are not just lessons for the disabled, but for all of us. It should not take a disability or illness for us to recognize the importance of our family, social and work relationships. Living with a disability forces us to address the priorities in life that we all take for granted.

~Richard C. Senelick, MD

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners