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Richard C. Senelick, M.D. Headshot

Disabilities Can Teach Us How to Live

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"I was me despite my limp" -- Joshua Prager

I am a neurologist and the medical director of a rehabilitation hospital where we see many people with severe disabilities, some like Joshua Prager, some much worse. I frequently hear my able-bodied friends say, "I would rather be dead than be a quadriplegic, have a severe stroke or a brain injury." My medical colleagues half-seriously talk about how they might start accumulating sedatives so they will have the means to "end it" if they find themselves in an "unbearable" situation. Bold talk from the strong and healthy, but what would they really choose?

Joshua Prager is a terrific example of the flaw in my friends' hypothetical decision. Immediately after his accident he was unable to move his arms or legs, his breathing was dependent on a ventilator and he needed someone to perform the most intimate aspects of his care. Now he is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker who inspires others to go on and live in "their now."

All of us, at one time or another, ask ourselves what represents "quality" in our lives. On a bad day it may seem like there is no quality while other days are filled with great joy. The truth is that many of the things that enrich and provide quality in our lives are the same for able-bodied individuals and for people with disabilities. But society doesn't see it that way. Many, if not most, people assume that someone with a severe disability couldn't possibly have the same dreams and aspirations that they do. Think about it. One minute Joshua Prager was able-bodied, strong and walking the streets of Jerusalem, yet in a millisecond he became a severely disabled form of his prior self. Did his dreams, aspirations and the things that brought him joy change? No, the dreams are there, but the ability to achieve them is impeded.

When we think we wouldn't want to live like Joshua Prager, we focus on the physical aspects of his disability. We are pretty good at helping people compensate for their physical impairments, but the real challenge lies in areas we rarely think about What did you first notice about Joshua Prager when he walked on the TED stage? Was it his brown hair or the colors of eyes? I suspect not. Your eyes focus on his limp, his cane, and his paralyzed left arm. If he was walking down the street, would you see a disabled person or a handsome young journalist? But at some point in his TEDTalk you became captivated with his story telling and hardly noticed his disability.

If something happened to my wife, I suspect there is some woman out there who would meet me for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Now, if I have a stroke, has the pool of women willing to have that cup of coffee narrowed? You bet it has. I may feel like the same person in my head, but my disability narrows my social opportunities. My peer group initially shows interest and then slowly disappears. There is a great deal of attention in maintaining social networks for the elderly, but the same must be done for people with disabilities. The key, as always, is to start with the children and teach them that value of a human being is not in their ability to carry a football or dunk a basketball, but in the quality of their humanity.

We all complain about work, but for many of us it is a large part of our identity. We have a picture in our mind of our abilities and what we want to be doing with our lives. At work I interact with my peer group, develop social relationships and find ways to get recognition. Yes, I crave recognition. If I became disabled, the hospital where I am medical director may not "be able" to find a place for me, or they may suggest that I volunteer to help file charts. I would not easily settle for less than I had. The challenge lies in finding rewarding employment for people with disabilities who can and want to work.

Finally, we all live for our future prospects. No matter how good our lives are at the moment, we like to think about our next vacation, when our book will be published, or something as simple as our plans with our children for the next weekend -- maybe the beach. Catastrophic injuries and illnesses may bring a sudden halt to an individual's or family's plans. Once the physical part of rehabilitation is complete, how do we provide a "prescription" that allows the person to make a successful transition into areas that give them future prospects? It is not always easy to align your future with your abilities.

These are not just lessons for the disabled, but for all of us. It should not take a disability or illness for us to recognize the importance of our family, social and work relationships. Joshua Prager helps us address the priorities in life that we take for granted until they are gone forever.

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