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Parenthood, Adversity, and Harnessing a “No Barriers” Life

Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer talks fatherhood, vulnerability, and risk.

Key points

  • There is a richness and depth of experience that can be found in harnessing adversity and finding one’s grit and passion in supportive community.
  • Discovering new, creative ways to adapt to the world can be an advantage. Kids growing up with parents with disabilities learn this life skill.
  • Studies show that kids who grow up with parents with disabilities score significantly higher in areas of empathy and emotional literacy.
  • Empathy and emotional sensitivity can be a double-edged sword. Kids also need fun, lightheartedness, and the permission to “just be kids."
Photo courtesy of Erik Weihenmayer
The Weihenmayer family
Source: Photo courtesy of Erik Weihenmayer

The word “disability” is a loaded one, and often, people conjure up images depicting the negative aspects of disability. We believe (often erroneously) that people with physical or sensory limitations would prefer a softer, easier life. One that’s predictable, uncomplicated, and trouble-free. While sometimes that can be the case (especially in regard to accessibility, equity, and services), there is a richness and depth of experience that can be found in harnessing adversity; in finding one’s grit and passion in a supportive community and in discovering new, creative ways to adapt to the world around us.

Erik Weihenmayer is a blind adventure athlete who has summited Mount Everest, kayaked the toughest and most treacherous part of the Grand Canyon, and helped found the organization No Barriers, a non-profit whose motto is: “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” He is also the author of the book No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon and co-author of The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness. He’s a husband and father of two children, one through birth and one through adoption.

Advantages of growing up in the disability community

“My kids have grown up in the disability community, so differences are just normal for them,” Erik shares. “They’re really comfortable with differences. With seeing people struggle and working through things. They’ve also got a take-charge attitude when it comes to noticing needs, and they know what it means to adapt. Those are great life skills for any kids.”

In 2017, the Greater Good Institute at Berkeley published a study1,2 showing that children growing up with parents with a sensory disability scored significantly higher in areas of empathy and emotional literacy. In addition, “adult children of parents with a visual or hearing disability reported benefits, including a great deal of maturity, sensitivity to others and a wide range of life experiences, and a sense that their family experience had developed and encouraged their empathy with others.”

"Empathy can be a double-edged sword"

While that adaptability, richness, and sense of community have been great in so many respects, there is also a downside. “I think sometimes kids growing up with parents with disabilities might feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders,” Erik shares. “I’ve been really careful about that because kids should be kids. Empathy can be a double-edged sword. It’s important to balance that sensitivity with fun and things that are a little more lighthearted. Just spending good quality time together doing normal stuff.”

Lessons kids learn from a parent with a disability

There are also some great undeniable lessons kids learn kind of through osmosis when having a parent with a disability. “Seeing your parents struggling and a little over their heads. When you witness your parents taking risks and being vulnerable, that translates into their lives—it’s not as if the rules change when they get older. It’s like they say, ‘oh, I got this.’ It’s a good thing.”

Erik recalls his kids watching as he began his whitewater kayaking journey and the lessons learned through this experience. “They’ve seen my face as I go into a rapid. Sure, you’re scared of drowning, but really, you’re afraid you’re going to shatter this carefully built perception of yourself. This fragile deck of cards of how you see yourself, or how you want to be.”

For many kids, especially those who have histories of any kind of trauma or adversity, taking risks is wrought with many complicated emotions. Sure, we don’t want to fail, but putting in the effort is already a risk.“If you go into the world like, ‘it’s a hard place. I don’t believe in the outcome, so why try?’ It’s important to model what giving 100 percent looks like. To show that it’s fun to try at something, and even to fail sometimes because it’s part of the process. You can try and fail. And it’s not the end of the world. When you’re doing hard things, there is no way not to be vulnerable.”

Overcoming barriers with a disability

Isolation, fear, and aloneness are the biggest barriers to overcome when navigating the world with a disability. Erik recalls what it was like when he was young and lost his sight, how he rekindled a passion for outdoor pursuits which brought him joy, and how he helped create a community for others facing similar challenges. “Life is so surprising,” he says. “I only got into rock climbing because I couldn’t play baseball anymore. Then I met so many amazing people in the process.”

There’s something about embracing the knowledge that we need other people that cuts through barriers. Admitting that we can’t do hard things in isolation helps pave the way to the creation of a supportive, empowering community. “That’s your rope team. It’s what helps define the No Barriers lifestyle.”

The question persists for many of us in the disability community: “If you could take away this impairment and have an easier life, would you do it?”

“I’m sort of a pragmatist,” Erik shares. “One of the ways you flourish with a disability is, you say goodbye to those things that were a part of your life or never will be, along with the habits that were built into your brain. You have to kill those because they don’t serve you anymore. And you lean into forging new connections, new experiences, and new adventures.”

None of us has a crystal ball to see how life unfolds. Adversity presents itself at any point, without our consent or approval. If and when it does, an adventurous spirit, a supportive community, and an openness to meet the world with a sense of curiosity go a long way, paving the road ahead with a sense of purpose and direction.

For kids, there’s nothing more powerful than learning by example and witnessing integrity in action. “It’s the beauty of the No Barriers life,” Erik says. “We don’t get to choose our circumstances, pick the adversity, or control the outcome. But we get to help our children grow through their own unique experiences. They hone their special talents and become their own people. Witnessing it all unfold is the beauty of parenthood.”

References

(1 ) Knudsen, Jenn. Are the Children of Parents with Disabilities More Empathic? According to a new study, children who live with parents with a sensory disability develop greater emotional skills. Greater Good Magazine. August 8th, 2017.

(2)Sigal, Eden. Being a parent's eyes and ears: emotional literacy and empathy of children whose parents have a sensory disability https://nasenjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1471-

No Barriers USA (for more information see nobarriersusa.org)

Weihenmayer, Erik and Paul Stoltz. The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness. Touchstone Books. 2010.

Weihenmayer, Erik and Buddy Levy. No Barriers: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon. Thomas Dunne Books. 2018.

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