Q: When did you feel at peace with yourself as a woman with a disability?
My dictionary defines disability as follows:
1. The condition of being disabled; incapacity, 2. A disadvantage or deficiency, especially a physical or mental impairment that prevents or restricts normal achievement, etc.
It’s hard to spin femininity with our disability as defined by the dictionary.
So, what am I? Let me see … I am an immigrant, Asian, widow, single mother of two and–lordy lordy–I use a wheelchair! Shoot, the words alone are making me want to get up out of my chair and run from this woman. But these words do not describe how I know myself.
When written words describe you as such (and you know, all written words are true), it is hard to go against the grain. In most cases, we didn’t have a say so in the matter–we didn’t sign up to be the woman using a wheelchair; it chose us. So the question is, do we sit and let the dictionary define us, or do we use our own written words to redefine who we are as women using wheelchairs?
I asked a few of my favorite women who I’ve met through my job as a peer support coordinator at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta this question, “When did you feel at peace with yourself as a woman with a disability?” These women aren’t new to their wheelchairs–most of them have had their disabilities for at least 10 years. I hope their answers help to redefine “disability” in the dictionary of our hearts and minds.
Find your voice. Find your essence. You will be pleasantly surprised.
–Minna Hong, 39, T12-L1 paraplegic.
For me, peace has come with life experience and honesty. Being honest with myself and other people is something that I continuously work at. In the past, I used to hide from it. If I was having a bad day or was frustrated about something, I would just cover it up with a happy face. It was like I was in denial that I sometimes needed special accommodations and help with things–and I would tell people I didn’t when I really did. Sexually, I didn’t want my partner to bother with trying to please me and would just focus on making sure that he was happy. I felt like I needed to apologize for the fact that my body was different and, at times, even felt ashamed of it. I wanted everyone to think I was strong, independent, and totally put together. The truth is that I am all of these things no matter what, and I deserve pleasure and happiness just like everyone else.
The more I learn to be honest with myself, what I feel, and what I desire, and confidently have a voice about it, the more at peace I am with myself.
–Teal Sherer, 24, L2 paraplegic.
It’s been 10 years since I became a C5-7 quadriplegic and my internal acceptance of my femininity as it relates to the opposite sex remains one of my major obstacles. From a logical perspective, I know I have a lot to offer: I’m a successful attorney, intelligent, with a good heart and great sense of humor. The problem is I went from being an independent, fit, petite, confident woman with those characteristics to a dependent, muscleless, quad-bellied insecure person. I am now 38, and most of my friends are married with children, and I no longer do the bar scene, so my whole approach to dating is new.
My insecurities about my desirability combined with all of the complications my injury brings allow me to question why someone would want to date me. These are projected feelings that I’m working on–can you tell I’m still in therapy? It’s proving to be a long process, but I’m still working on it!
–Deborah G. Krotenberg, 38, C5-7 quadriplegic.
What age did I become comfortable with myself/femininity as a woman with a disability?
The question has two layers for me.
I never have doubted my femininity. I never thought my disability had anything to do with that. However, it has had an influence with the way men and general society viewed my femininity. General society views people with disabilities as being asexual, and sometimes you have to wait longer for someone to come into your life who can really appreciate your femininity.
The second layer is being able to appreciate yourself as a woman with a disability. That came late in my life. In fact, that has happened in the last 10 years. After my second marriage ended before I was ready for it to end, I had to ask myself what I was doing wrong. I realized just how strong I really am. I realized that if I could survive that kind of hurt and come out of that experience with a smile and my ego intact, I could survive anything. I have looked back often and wondered what I could have done differently. I always come to the conclusion that I did my best and that was pretty good.
I have never been defined myself by just my disability. I am a total individual.
–Kate Gainer, 56, cerebral palsy.
I‘ve really been thinking about this and something really hit me! I don’t know if I’m there yet! The one thing that I’ve struggled with in every relationship I’ve been in since being in the chair is my sexuality. I’ve never not felt like a woman who would attract men in my life, but once in a relationship I really struggle with a man telling me I’m beautiful and actually enjoying having sex with me. I just don’t get it! The mental game I have to play with myself regarding the SEX part still screws with me! There’ve been many times I’ve just wanted to stop it completely so I don’t have to deal with it anymore!
–Stephany Glassing, 40, T11 paraplegic.
I broke my back at age 20. While in rehabilitation, on a weekend pass, my husband and I went to a motel. He wanted to make love. I was outfitted with an indwelling catheter, and it was the most UNsexy experience. Years later he admitted he did not want to spend the rest of his life with a woman in a wheelchair. I was devastated–and relieved.
After separating from my husband, my self-image began to evolve. I found myself attracted to an older man, stunned when he revealed the attraction was mutual. We became lovers. One evening he commented, “You have really lovely thighs.” He later remarked I was “The Sexiest Woman–Ever.” Gradually I understood–he was speaking not of my body, but how I inhabit it. That was a turning point. I’m still learning, as my current partner reminds me, “Sexy is as sexy does.”
–Jaehn Clare, 44, T12 paraplegic.
I feel better with myself than I ever have at the age of 74 and using a wheelchair. I am a firm believer in things happening for a reason. I have gained self confidence that I did not exhibit before. I was quiet before; I identified myself as a mother, a wife and a business partner. Since the injury, I have gained respect from my family. I have the mindset of being able to accomplish anything if I set my mind to it.
Disability has given me freedom and I receive it as a gift. It’s about having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Disability has really helped me prove my personal strength. I have the time to work on myself. As for femininity, it comes from the inside. Feeling desirable to others is important, but feeling desirable to yourself is far more important.
–Joan Henry, 74, L1 paraplegic