Disability 101: Presume competence
December 4, 2007
I’m a middle-aged woman disabled with multiple sclerosis. Sometimes my legs are weak. Sometimes they’re like Jell-O; they wiggle everywhere and are hard to control. Sometimes my left leg drags. Sometimes it’s numb. Sometimes it’s totally paralyzed. Only sometimes.
Sometimes my fingers don’t work so well and bumble and stumble over my computer keyboard. Sometimes my left hand is numb. Sometimes it’s totally paralyzed. Sometimes I have severe pain in my legs and my back. Only sometimes.
I’m a middle-aged woman disabled with multiple-sclerosis and I’m an athlete. Do you think I contradict myself? Let me shatter your preconceptions.
I handcycle. A handcycle looks like a recumbent bike with two wheels in back, one in front, and a seat like a chair. With a handcycle, you don’t use your legs at all. They merely rest in supports. Instead, you propel yourself with an arm-powered crank. A handcycle has the same gears and brakes as a road bike and rides like one.
With a handcycle, it doesn’t matter that my legs don’t work. It doesn’t matter if my hands don’t work so well. All I need is my arms to crank.
When I first started handcyling, I couldn’t go very far. But I kept at it. I got better and better. Now I can ride 28 miles at a time and crank myself up Vail Pass. All by the strength of my arms.
I also mountain bike with an adaptive bike called a One-Off. A One-Off has two wheels in front and one in back. On this bike you lean forward in a prone position, resting your chest on a supporting pad. It’s also arm-powered, with the crank under the chest pad. Brakes and gears are on the handlebars near the crank.
The One-Off can do wider single track that doesn’t cant too far to one side. This summer I did the green single track at Keystone. I can crank up some serious hills because the gears are so phenomenal. Down is incredible. Serious disk brakes allow me to bounce along at speeds that are, on occasion, faster than my able-bodied instructors.
I also mono-ski, a type of sit-ski. It has a form fitting seat, leg supports in front, and one ski mounted underneath. Instead of poles, outriggers are used with short skis on the bottom. I am unable to grip an outrigger with my left hand so I use what is called a grip mitt. The grip mitt is a glove that has multiple fasteners which wrap around the outrigger. The grip mitt holds on to the outrigger; I don’t have to.
When I first started mono-skiing, I wasn’t very good. But I kept at it. I got better and better. By the end of last ski season, I could carve lovely turns and use my edge to make a great hockey stop. I skied the blacks on Peak 10 at Breckenridge and was starting to explore the bumps.
People who are really good mono-skiing can ski anything a person who stands up on two regular skis can. My goal this season is to be able to ski double-diamond blacks and to get better at bumps.
I have MS. I can’t walk worth beans. I usually use a wheelchair to go grocery shopping. But I’m an athlete.
Not all people with disabilities are athletes. But some people you see in wheelchairs are athletes. Think about that possibility before you form your assumptions.
A group called Disability is Natural, based in Woodland Park (www.disabilityisnatural.com), has long asserted, “When you see, meet or think about a person with a disability, presume competence.”
So when you see me out in the community in my wheelchair, or walking with my cane, please don’t assume I can’t. Very often, I can. Presume competence.