A few months ago, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law shared a story about their son Liam, who just turned 5 not long ago. They were showing him pictures from their wedding and he stopped them when he saw a picture of me. Their wedding was in July of 2010, just a few months after my second spinal cord surgery, which we thought had been a complete success. They asked me to be one of the groomsmen and I was ecstatic to both take part and that I was walking well so soon after. Granted I was using a cane, but I just thought those pictures with it made me look a little more dashing (full credit to the photographers). I actually walked around a mountain top during that time and it was the last time I got to do a hike like that. We had some great pictures of our whole extended Flynn family and some of the best ever taken of Shannon and I.
But…those pictures left little Liam very confused.
“Uncle Jason doesn’t walk. He has a wheelchair.”
The story gave us all a good laugh as we considered that he’s never known me in any other way. In fact, he’s even taken to telling his teachers about his Uncle Jason and his wheelchair (or so I’ve been told) and he tells the story of how it happened MUCH more concisely than I ever could. The story struck me though as I considered all of my nephews and nieces. Almost all of them have no memory of me out of the wheelchair. The only two who might recall were still young enough that the memories of me walking will quickly fade. Hell, how much do you remember from your early to mid-teens clearly?
All of these kids, Jonathan, Luke, David, Tyler, Sammy, Ben, Alex, Alysa, Henry, Nathan, Samantha, Liam and Orlagh, will have known me longer in the chair, than they could ever remember me out of it. In the youngest cases, it’s all they’ll ever know. Now I admit, naming all these kids, who are family to me, really does make me feel old. Well, that and realizing that I have known my oldest, best friend for 30 years now…but I’m straying on that one. The trick is, these kids are growing up with someone in their life with a visible disability, something that is obviously different, but not a one of them blinks at it. It’s a normal for them. They are aware of it, of my limits and capabilities (no punching uncle Jason in his back!) and they have a perspective on disability that I never had at their age. It’s not anything strange to them anymore. What’s funny is that I have an old photo of Luke sitting in my lap as a toddler in a rented wheelchair we used to roll around the zoo back in 2000, after my first surgery. We never knew how prophetic this picture was going to be.
These kids know there is nothing odd or, more importantly, wrong with a person with a disability. They have grown up helping to push me, or lift me up stairs and over curbs as they got older. They’ve taken joy rides in my chair, the few times I’m out of it. I’m proud of them as none has yet to flip it trying to do wheelies (something the aforementioned 30 year friend can’t claim). When we all go out for dinner at a new restaurant, I don’t even have to ask the guys to check out the facilities for me. More likely than not, I’ll get a tap on the shoulder (usually attempting the trick of tapping one shoulder while standing behind the other…yes I’m looking at you Luke), and get a thumb’s up or a grimace and a look that says “not a chance”. They think my lift for the chair into the car is the coolest car mod ever, still fascinated by it almost 3 years into my having it. The wheelchair is just something else in the lives of their extended family.
My hope is that this attitude will extend to others they will meet in their lives and that it will lead to them spreading that acceptance until other people can just take a wheelchair, or a blindness, or a prosthetic limb as no different from the colour of their hair. The cane with the audio cues is just too cool, and damn that laser printed prosthetic limb looks like it came right out of Deus Ex (video game for those who don’t know). I’m confident that it will with these kids, even as some are taking their steps into becoming adults. That part scares me. The kids of my friends and family are becoming adults. Say what you might about this generation, but what I’ve seen fills me with hope. With a little luck, I’ll have spent more time of my life in the chair than out of it and these kids will never know that it was ever different.
Now Liam…just remember, Uncle Jason can push himself just fine…no wait…watch for that tree!