Going to school, whether it was elementary, middle, high school or college was one of the MOST amazing, fun-filled times of my life, but it didn’t start out that way. As Deputy Barney Fife told Gomer one day on the Andy Griffith Show, “During our lifetime, we travel many roads…” Seemed like I had a rocky road in elementary and middle school, and I don’t mean the ice cream!!!
Granted, I was just getting used to the chair the first couple years in elementary school, so I had a lot of questions. How do I push a wheelchair? Would I like it? Would I make friends easily? Would other students treat me like an outcast? Would their treatment force me to be hidden away in a special education class, force me to live my life in a strange imaginary bubble, away from society, away from the world I was excited to get out and explore?
Boy was I shocked to learn the answer to these questions… When I started kindergarten, I used to get stared at a lot, mostly from other students and classmates, and this continued through most of middle school. I’m not ashamed to say I was truly saddened that they thought I was ugly and perhaps thought I was some kind of a monster.
I remember one instance like it was yesterday. I was coming back from the gym one day in elementary school and noticed a girl beside the ice cream freezer staring a hole right through my head. (We got ice cream a couple times a week after lunch if we were good :)) I thought about that girl the rest of the week, and the weekend, and finally decided to tell my teachers and parents what happened. I’m not sure what became of the situation, but as I got older and started to put myself in other students’ positions, throughout the rest of my education, I changed MY attitude toward the other students.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, “Why change your attitude? THEY’RE the ones that need to change.” Well, I got to thinking one day… “Jason, you know the students and other kids that look at you may not think you’re that ugly at all. Maybe, just maybe, they’re curious about the chair and why you move around on wheels.”
I vowed to myself, probably during high school (things were a little crazy back then!!!), to tell people about my disability and invite them into “Jason’s World” to ask questions, touch my wheelchair, and pick my brain to better understand how AMAZING life with a disability can be.
Looking back, would I have done things differently, by talking to other students early on, making them feel comfortable right away? Probably, but the answer you’re likely to get from me is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! It’s hard to explain, but growing up with the stares and (more than likely) remarks behind my back, has probably helped me become a better man and better able to deal with small children when they come up to me in public.
I understand that they’re curious and now I have so much fun talking to children and adults, too, about spina bifida and wheelchairs. I’m out in public two or three times a week, writing stories and taking pictures for my job with the city of Marietta, and it’s amazing how many friends and colleagues I’ve met and formed great working relationships with. But whenever I meet someone new, I alays try to have a smile on my face and introduce myself to put them at ease before we start talking. And little kids are some of my biggest fans now!! Matter of fact, I was at Wendy’s drive-in last week and saw this cute little girl turned around backwards in her chair (her knees were in the chair), smiling at me, eating a salad. I smiled at her and kept waving at her. I think she was shy because she kept looking away when I caught her looking at me, but she was SO CUTE!!!