Abilities

Yesterday I attended a TEDxWomen event in New York City. With a group of other women (and a few men) I watched a full day of TED Talks by and about women—and by a few exceptional men. I wanted to blog about it, but it was too much to put together overnight. Eventually I’ll write about the day, either singly about some of the Talks or collectively about the event. But the penultimate Talk has inspired me to tell a different story.

The next to last speaker was Caroline Casey, a woman who lived the first seventeen years of her life not knowing she is legally blind. Somehow her parents were able to make her believe she could do anything that any of her fully sighted friends and classmates could do.

I happened to attend a college that had an unusually high number of disabled students. Once upon a time, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Marist College built most of it classroom and dormitory buildings to be wheelchair accessible. After a while it became background. The first time I saw a student who had no arms in the cafeteria, it was a shock. After a while, it became routine. One night in the campus pub he beat me at a video game. Still later, I realized there were students with disabilities that were not visible.

Needing Help

It was the first week of my third semester, the first meeting of one of my English courses. The professor, Mr. Lewis, was just beginning to speak when I heard a sharp breath behind me, then a soft gasp. The breath seemed very close; the gasp was such as you’d hear in a movie theater at the moment an unexpected plot twist is revealed.

Mr. Lewis stopped speaking and stared—not at me, but at something just behind me. I waited. Nothing was said. I turned around and saw the young woman in the desk behind me uncouscious and rigid in her desk. I was taking it in when a voice near me said, in a calm and reassuring tone, “She’s having a seizure.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought that’s what it was. I’ve never seen one.”

“Do you know what to do?” The voice belonged to a classmate, Jim, who was sitting next to me. Marist is a small liberal arts college, slightly under 2,000 students at the time, so English and Communications majors, who take some of the same courses, get to know each other. Jim and I had taken classes together before. We had both been in classes taught by Mr. Lewis. There was some trust among us, but it was about to be pushed to new limits.

“No,” I said.

“I do. I’ll talk you through it.”

Jim was smart, funny, thoughtful—but he was also a quadriplegic. An accident had damaged his spinal cord and he got around campus in a battery-powered wheelchair controlled by a joystick. Jim manipulated the joystick with a metal loop attached to his wrist by a velcro strap. He had limited use of his arms, but not of his hands or legs. Yet he was the only person in the room who knew how to handle the situation.

“Get her out of the desk,” Jim said. I stood and slid my arms under her shoulders and hips. She was petite and it wasn’t difficult to lift her: she was rigid as a board. I put her down on the floor in the aisle beside her desk. At Jim’s instruction, I put her sweatshirt, which she’d draped over the back of the desk, under her head, so she wouldn’t be injured if she had another convulsion.

I tried to kneel beside her, but it was cramped. I stood, picked up an empty desk, and hurled it to the back corner of the room, behind the empty row of desks behind Jim’s wheelchair. It hit the wall and dropped, entangled with another desk beneath it.

I knelt beside the girl, who looked awfully small and pale on the classroom floor. Jim talked me through first aid, checking her breathing, looking for other injuries. Then there was nothing more to do. I looked at the unconscious girl beside me. I looked at Jim. Back and forth, watching for a change in her situation or new instructions from Jim. I have no idea how much time passed, but it was probably just a few minutes.

Then I looked up at Jim and saw paramedics walking through the door pushing a stretcher. I was relieved that help had arrived. I looked around the room and it was empty except for me, Jim, Mr. Lewis, the still unconscious girl on the floor beside me… Without my noticing, Mr. Lewis had sent a student to the Campus Security office to call an ambulance, and the rest of the class had quietly filed out and found an empty classroom a few doors away.

We were walking down the hall toward the new classroom, Jim in his wheelchair on one side of me and Mr. Lewis on the other. Mr. Lewis stopped, gently put his hand on my arm to stop me, and looked deeply into my eyes.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m OK. What are we doing out here?” To this day I have absolutely no memory of the time between the paramedics arriving and my noticing the room was empty, and walking in the hall with Jim and Mr. Lewis. How I stood up, collected my handbag, books and jacket are a complete blank.

I stayed with the class. Fortunately it was my last class of the day. Afterward I went back to my dorm room, kicked off my shoes, and fell into bed, immediately asleep on top of the covers. A while later—maybe a couple of hours–a friend came to get me for dinner. He said I looked awful, and I told him what had happened.

“That was YOU?” He’d heard about the seizure. Apparently the story was spreading around campus. But nobody knew it was Jim and me who had given first aid until the ambulance arrived.

So when I hear people described as disabled, I always think of Jim. He had no use of his legs. He had some motion in his arms, but couldn’t move his fingers independently. And yet which of us was more capable that afternoon? I had strong arms and legs. My hands could grip an unconscious girl, a sweatshirt, a desk. But I had no idea what to do. Jim did everything through me.

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