The most significant endeavor I have undertaken in my life occurred just two weeks into my first semester at college. Having buried two husbands and two children in my lifetime, I had spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, but this experience would change how I approached life forevermore. It all began the day I was asked by a classmate if I would consider being her mobility assistant. Thus began my friendship with a woman I came to consider a giant among women.
Emma was a twenty-eight year old, single mother who had suffered a massive stroke four years earlier, which severely damaged the left side of her body. I was soon to learn that this witty young woman’s spirit was much larger than her disabled body could ever hope to contain. During the next five months, I would spend five to six hours a day with her on campus, which started by meeting her in the parking lot every morning, unloading her scooter from the trunk of her car, and assembling it for her. We would then go to class and begin our day. We attended our psychology and human relation together as well as a water aerobics class. It was in our water aerobics class that I really began to admire her. Here was a woman who had to be helped in and out of the pool, assisted while in the pool, and sometimes even had to be helped while she was in the shower. It was at times like those that I learned from Emma that laughter was in fact the best medicine and that laughter at one’s own expense was often the best cure for an embarrassing situation.
During the next few months, I learned to see the world from a different perspective. I found myself more aware of the world around me and more importantly the people in it. I began noticing accessibility concerns and reporting them to the appropriate persons in the Disability Support Services Department. I learned how to help people in a way that did not diminish their dignity. I joined the Organization For Human Awareness group on campus and became an advocate for the physically challenged students and visitors on our campus.
Emma so inspired me that when I decided to change my major to social work, I planned to specialize in gerontology and the physically handicapped. I never would have guessed how much that would mean to me in a personal way in the years to come. Three years ago, I too was added to the ranks of the “handicapped” and found myself constricted to life in a scooter as she was. If it had not been for Emma, I might have felt sorry for myself and given up school completely, but she taught me that we are only as “handicapped” as we allow ourselves to be. And by believing that I have been able to leave my scooter behind me for the most part. Having suffered another stroke, Emma is no longer with me, but when I graduate this Saturday I’ll limp across that stage for both of us and she will be there with me in spirit. In this, I firmly believe.