Monday, March 31, 2008

What is a disability? Really?

I volunteer at the Arizona Animal Welfare League on Friday afternoons. We are a no-kill shelter that rescues animals from other local shelters who have been placed on the euthanasia list. This past Friday, we took in a remarkable young cat who humbled us all and who made me think about what it means to be disabled.

You see, Helen is blind. She's just 8 months old, and her eyes are clouded with cataracts. In addition to coming to us with this issue, her back was shaved and sewn up where the vets had treated several puncture wounds. As well fed as she appeared to be, it seems as though Helen accidentally slipped out of her home and found her way into the jaws of a predator.

So by the time this little kitty, who could not see, had found her way to us,she'd (1) lost her way, (2) been confused and disoriented, (3) almost been eaten, (4) been captured, (5) ridden in a van to the Humane Society where she was placed in a cage in the same noisy aisle with anxious barking dogs, (6) been poked and prodded and operated on, (7) been put in another van to come to us, (8) been poked and prodded yet again for our intake, (9) been put in yet another strange cage. That's a lot to take in when you can't see, everything is strange, and no one can explain to you in a way that you understand what is going on, and that things are going to get much, much better very, very soon.

I helped with the intake. And as much sympathy as I had for Helen, recognizing that she could very well be at her kitty breaking point, I was a little hesitant to pick her up to put her on the scale. When I did, she was a little nervous, but let me guide her through the process.

I picked her up to snuggle her after that, making sure all four of her feet were against my body to help her feel secure. She immediately went limp and let me comfort her. When it was time to put her in her cage, she didn't fight. She positioned herself right near the front and hung her paws out the door, very happy, it seemed, to have a safe place to collapse.

I couldn't stop thinking about her Friday night, so I went in the next day to spend time with her. I took her out of the cage, and sat on the floor, with the intent of petting her. Helen would have none of it. She immediately stood up and started walking around the room, investigating her surroundings. Her steps were deliberate, but she didn't miss a detail. Within a half hour, she knew the layout of the room. Within the next half hour, she had befriended the curious kitten who had been watching this process, sensed something was different about his new friend, and who extended a paw in a careful, considerate gesture.

While I watched Helen go about life as if it was just another day, I realized...the only ones who saw her as disabled, were the people taking care of her! Helen had never been able to see, so she didn't know there was such a concept. She didn't speak our language, so no one could tell her she had anything to feel sorry for herself about. She just had the life she had, and she was going about it the way she always had.

It reminded me of so many of the people I work with in my profession. In medicine, we define people by the diagnoses for which we treat them. But what seems to happen is that those labels set up the expectations we have for our clients. And the clients live up to our expectations, high or low. We often don't let the client decide just what it's going to mean to have diabetes...or bipolar disorder...or infertility. We label them, tell them what the label is, tell them all the things they shouldn't do because they now fit into a specific category. And in doing so, we set ourselves up to be the worst possible influence that person ever had as far as setting out to achieve their potential.

Of course, having a medical diagnosis can change who you are! But that isn't necessarily a bad thing! Just ask Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, who were both supposedly bipolar. Who knows...maybe it was the way bipolar disorder hardwired their brains that set them up to be the great achievers they ended up to be?

Sometimes, the very thing about us that we choose to use as our reason to limit our expectations and efforts, is the very thing that makes us unique and special and just a cut above average.

I'd say just ask Helen the cat...but she's too busy being Special Helen to worry about what you think of her.

See for yourself!

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