Erin Kelly, a writer with cerebral palsy, reflects on losing her key to independence when traveling.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve watched cars pass by my bedroom window. They’ve been all shapes, sizes, makes and models — but they whiz by so fast that it’s often a brilliant blur of color and speed. I just sit, listen and let the roar of their engines grind into my consciousness as they fade into the distance.
For even longer, I’ve imagined what it would be like to be in the driver’s seat, while sitting in the backseat of my Mom’s van. Again, I’m looking out a window. This one is often dotted with raindrops or snowflakes and misted over with steam. When there’s a red light, the car stops and I get to see the detailed exterior of the car beside us, but only until the light turns green. When we get to where we’re going, I hear Mom open the trunk of the van and get my rickety, oversized wheelchair out.
While I often have to remind myself it’s not my fault it has to be this way, my circumstances have given me a view that I wouldn’t trade for the world. If I’m lucky, I get to take my other chair, which is motorized, wherever we go — but that’s only if we have extra hands to help. For the most part, this has been my main frame of reference in terms of having the independence and freedom to travel — or even to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s not because I’ve never wanted to learn how to drive or because I’m not old enough.
It’s instead due to the fact that I was born with cerebral palsy, which has meant my family has had to make many adaptations. One of them being my Mom’s van, which was supposed to be outfitted with a ramp several years ago. My family bought the van with an agreement from the company we’d gotten it from that the changes would be made in a timely manner.
A few weeks later, we were told nothing could be done because we bought the wrong van —and had to get another one if we wanted the ramp installed. This entire game of cat and mouse took years before it was settled, but not without a few more hurdles. Finally, it was as if a weight had been lifted from all of our shoulders.
I’ve been fascinated by the fact cars and other things with wheels can take people from one place to another, whenever they please. It’s a simple concept, but one I’ve never quite grasped —partly because I’ve never had an honest chance to do so. My motor chair has always been the equivalent of that kind of freedom, but unfortunately, I have few opportunities to use it in public now.
My Mom was in a bad car accident a number of years ago that totaled her handicapped accessible van. She was on her way to work, and her foot slipped off the brake — causing her to swerve off the road and ultimately crash. There was minor damage to the van itself, but the extra electronics in it couldn’t be salvaged. As a result, my family’s time, patience — and most importantly, money — went down the drain.
It was a heartbreaking loss because my parents did everything they could to get that van, and to give me a sense of independence. I miss it more than I can admit, but I’m just grateful my Mom made it out of that crash alive.
I, along with the rest of my family, didn’t realize the luxuries we were afforded by having a van equipped with a ramp in the first place. We know now, because they were taken away in the blink of an eye. For me, it was my independence. I cannot maneuver my manual chair. For them, knowing they no longer had to worry about how I’d get from place to place without taking my manual chair was our initial problem back on the table.
I guess it goes to show that money may buy you diamond rings and fancy things. But when it comes down to it, it’s the simple things that really matter. One day, my “diamond ring” will come in the form of another handicapped accessible van!