At the Brain Injury Association’s recent “Walk and Roll” fundraiser, I hung out with two of my favorite people: India, who works in her family’s apple orchard, and Eleanor, who has devoted her life to advocating for justice and equality. They are part of a cohort I meet with regularly—The Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) support group.
India, Eleanor, and the other members of the group use wheelchairs; most need assistance with some activities of daily living and many have personal care assistants. Some of the group members are able to work, some are able to drive, and some of them are married with children. Each has a spirit that draws me to them, which is why I went to Walk and Roll.
No one in the SCI group has a brain injury; they are at the Walk and Roll to support and connect with people whose mobility challenges parallel their own. Before the Walk and Roll event was underway, a man with a brain injury wanted his wheelchair pushed toward India. And who wouldn’t? She smiles often and has big expressive eyes, and exudes vitality.
“Hi!” India said, smiling at him. He gazed at her, unable to speak his admiration. “Hi,” he finally said. India paused briefly, waiting to see if he would say more. When met with silence and more admiring gazes, she asked “What’s your name?”
"Kate." This silenced India for a very brief second. “Kate?” He nodded. India didn't bat an eyelash. “Hi, Kate. I’m India.”
Kate’s repertoire was limited, but India was willing to venture one more exchange: “I see you like purple.” Kate, whose hair was combed back in a mild pompadour, was wearing a purple button-down shirt and a purple tie. Kate nodded vigorously and repeated, “Purple.” India stuck out one of her feet for Kate to see: “I have on my purple sneakers. Do you like them?” Kate nodded again. “Purple.” “They sure are! It was nice to meet you. Have fun at the Roll!”
As India turned back to the SCI folks, she smiled. She had made Kate feel good: pleased to get attention, happy to be connected to India. India wears that talent to connect lightly, but it’s an important one: It serves her well in her work at the orchard, interacting with the public and replying again and again to the same comments from the visitors, like “You could use the windfall apples for cider!” as though that were an innovative idea, instead of an age-old practice. “Yes,” she says, again and again. “We do that actually. Unfortunately for us, it isn’t a financially efficient use of the apples.” She isn’t irritable. Instead, she enters into people’s excitement, reflecting their enthusiasm. India’s attention to Kate, including her lack of reaction to the person’s gender blurring, reflected the way she meets the world: with energy and focus, and with a desire to help vulnerable people feel stronger.
A little later, I noticed India wince and shake her head slightly when one of the featured speakers at the event commented how “awesome, inspiring and amazing you disabled people are.” India doesn’t welcome condescending praise. No one needs that. Instead, everyone needs to be treated as a person first, with their particular difference a distant second. Kate is Kate. His brain injury is only one part of him. His love of purple, his friendly warmth and curiosity, and his concept of gender are also important parts of him. India is India, her injury only one part of her. Her humor, intelligence, and compassion are also important parts of her, as is her dignity.
Eleanor is about 30 years older than India and had a car accident about the time India was born. The accident left her with a spinal cord injury and severe chronic pain. Eleanor, like most of the people in the SCI, went through a deeply challenging and long period of recovery and rehabilitation. A confident, savvy woman with her own successful employment agency, Eleanor was well-known in the community before her accident, and as she completed several years of intensive rehab and resumed her life outside of the hospital, she evaluated her situation. The range and severity of her injuries made her unable to return to work. But Eleanor knew that she had to have a purpose, or she would die. She knew a lot of people. She knew she had specific talents: communication skills, charisma, and commitment to specific values, especially justice and equality. She saw lots of opportunities to put her gifts to work in our community.
Eleanor remained, or became, involved with a wide range of organizations: she was the first Jewish president of the Junior League in our community, and she led the group to two of its most important and long-lasting achievements, the development of city’s first public daycare center and the initiative to fund and support a residential program for teenage mothers and their babies. Both programs are essential community resources 30 years after their founding. She was on the board of the local branch of the NAACP and remains an active member. She also works behind the scenes at the local hospital to keep support services for people with different abilities available, accessible, and advertised. Rumor has it that the CEO of the hospital quakes in his expensive boots when he gets a telephone call from Eleanor.
Eleanor also led the political action that led to the county courthouse to become wheelchair-accessible (as is common, it hadn’t been, despite affirmative action laws that required it to be). “I wanted all citizens to be able to serve on juries,” she said, characteristically minimizing her accomplishment and keeping the focus on the principle behind her action. “It’s important that people with different abilities be able to participate in all aspects of democracy, including being members of a jury of one’s peers.” And frankly, I want Eleanor and India, and every other member of the SCI, serving on juries. They know more than many of their neighbors how important it is to create and preserve a fair and just community.
The SCI group members connect with people in all kinds of ways. Sometimes one-on-one, as India did with Kate last weekend, and does all the time in her work with individual customers and members of the community (including me). Sometimes in groups, as they all do in the SCI group itself, and in various political and social actions. They all share their stories with remarkable ease, helping those of us who do not have to use wheelchairs understand their experience and learn their coping skills for complicated grief, physical and emotional pain, and deep frustration.
Associating with India and Eleanor helps me live my life better, with more awareness of the range of challenges humans face and the grace with which they respond to tribulation. Their commitment to democratic principles of compassion, social responsibility, and justice attracts me to them, especially in this time of national anxiety and fear. The magnetic attraction of the members of the Spinal Cord Injury support group enriches my life and makes me glad that we can walk and roll down the path of life together.