I sprained my ankle and wound up on crutches — well, really, on my butt on a couch most of the time, but every now and again on crutches.
I didn’t even get a good story out of it. Here’s what happened: I stepped off a curb.
It wasn’t high or uneven and I didn’t fall into a pothole. I just stepped off a curb, and my ankle turned out, and I crumpled. It’s not the first time my ankle has made me fall so it wasn’t a shock, but the pain was. I couldn’t walk, which was a problem because I fell right in front of a giant truck that was idling at a red light. With help I managed to scramble back to the sidewalk before the light changed.
Maybe it’s a sign of my advancing age that such a minor incident led to three or four weeks of disability, but that is a sob story for another time.
It was remarkable how my immobility changed everything about my life. I had only a short-term disability, but it gave me a glimpse into the lives of people who must struggle with this for their whole lives. Here are ten things I learned:
1. Humility: I had to ask for everything. I couldn’t fill a glass with water and carry it back to my seat, let alone shower or drive by myself. I couldn’t just satisfy my needs: I had to fit them into other people’s schedules. I had to learn that asking for help didn’t mean I was useless.
2. Trust: Every request I made felt like an imposition, so I had to learn to trust that the people around me really did want to help me. It may not have been convenient every time, but they liked feeling there was something they could do when I was in need and pain. When I apologized for my requests and they protested that they were happy to help, I tried to trust that they were telling the truth.
3. Crutches are death sticks: I am surprised I didn’t fall again trying to balance on those things. Some people make it look easy, but for those of us who are, let’s say, less athletically gifted, they can be scary. Stairs and ice were challenges (when it became clear how crutch-challenged I was, I was forbidden from taking on stairs without a spotter). High-pile carpet slowed me down. Narrow spaces required creative choreography.
4. Concrete: There is nothing like crutches to make you realize how uneven and narrow sidewalks are in many areas. That is, if there are sidewalks at all, which there are not in many suburban outposts.
5. People are very nice: even in Newark Airport, people happily let me cut lines. And that was when I was comfortably sitting in a wheelchair while they had been shifting from foot to foot for half an hour. The elderly in wheelchairs struck up conversations with me in solidarity, even when they saw my crutches and knew I was only a temporary visitor in their world.
6. People are patronizing: sitting in a wheelchair in a store’s vestibule with my mom, waiting for our ride to pull up, I noticed that every person who walked in or out smiled at me. I asked my mother why. “They feel sorry for you,” she said. And I immediately felt sorry for people who are stuck in wheelchairs for life and have to put up with all the condescending smiles.
7. There is often a reason people walk slowly, besides that they are idiots texting and ignoring the world around them. When physically intact I am a fast walker. I get annoyed when the sidewalk is blocked by shufflers. Once I got off the crutches and started walking with just a giant boot made almost entirely of velcro, I was SLOW. It was because every step hurt. I gained new empathy for the snail set.
8. Some disabilities are invisible. Eventually I graduated from the boot to regular shoes, but I still wasn’t healed. I was scared to take the subway because if I had to stand up and the train lurched, it seemed likely that something in my foot would get pulled the wrong way. I carried a cane so I could ask for seats without explanation, or maybe even get one without asking.
9. Immobility is depressing. Showering was such a production, going anywhere outside the house involved walking, and just going to a different floor was verboten without a chaperon. So I stayed on the couch. Sitting in one place for days in a row while your hair gets greasy can really get you down.
10. Planning ahead. When we went away for Thanksgiving we called ahead for wheelchairs at the airport. When we went to a store we called ahead to see if they had a wheelchair (if they didn’t, no trip to the store). If I needed to go somewhere outside, I had to plan for a sunny time to go because I couldn’t hold both crutches and an umbrella. I had to coordinate with other people’s schedules to make sure they would be available to chauffeur me when necessary.
If I were disabled for the long term I would face higher and more significant obstacles like finding a job despite the stigma around disability and finding or renovating a home that was wheelchair-accessible. My experience only skimmed the surface of the lives of a group of people I have come to respect more than ever.