I’m a self-described perfectionist. I analyze and overthink at times, but ultimately I’m learning that life is about jumping into the deep end and hoping you swim. Needless to say, I’m working on that perfectionism.
I don’t like to fail, but when I do, I’ll be the first to admit my shortcomings. I won’t lie, I’ve been blessed more by the failures than by the successes.
What matters more than anything is that I’ve been allowed to fail. Many times, for various reasons, people with disabilities are sheltered and insulated, and they aren’t allowed to fail or, for that matter, succeed. Expectations of people with disabilities tend to be low, not just by the outside world but sometimes even by people with disabilities themselves.
I am fortunate that I have always been pushed to seek out new experiences and find my passion. About five years ago, I may have even pushed my own limits, but I learned some valuable lessons about myself, my life and my disability.
Those lessons came on top of what some call a wall, but in reality, it’s a mountain. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.
My 30th birthday gift to myself was a trip to China with one of my very best friends. On day two of the trip we tackled the Great Wall of China. They don’t call it the Great Wall for nothing. While cable cars are provided to get visitors from the bottom of the wall to the top (and back down), we decided to only ride the cable car down due to my lack of depth perception.
We found ourselves climbing hundreds of steps to the top of the wall. It was about halfway through when I realized that we were indeed climbing a mountain. The views from those steps were spectacular. I naively thought that once we got to the top of the wall, things would go nice and smoothly. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If you aren’t aware, the Great Wall was once a defensive military wall, which means that the wall is not only ancient, but it’s far from smooth. There are steps in random places, drainage ditches where you wouldn’t expect them and various other obstacles that seem magnified because of my visual impairment.
I was initially determined to traverse the wall on my own, and for a while, things went all right. But then it happened. One of those random drainage ditches (more like a rut in the middle of a step) jumped out, and I almost fell. Most people probably wouldn’t have even noticed it because of its random location, but as I note later, if it can be found, I will find it.
So in spite of my insistence on crossing the wall solo, I took a deep breath, took my friend’s arm and climbed all over that wall before we boarded the cable car for the ride down. I learned some valuable lessons that day.
First, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. The world looks different from that vantage point.
Second, even when “rut steps” look like the enemy, that simple rut in a step can teach you the most valuable lessons you’ve ever learned.
Finally, failure is in the eye of the beholder. I could have easily determined that trip to the top of the wall was a failure because my expectations weren’t met. I could have easily given up because I found that I wasn’t able to do it on my own. But I didn’t do either of those things.
We powered through and got some of the most amazing views from the top of that wall. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, but it’s an experience that was indeed far different for me than the average tourist climbing the wall. Sure I was mesmerized by the views and the sheer craftsmanship of that wall, but the lessons I learned about failure and disability will never be forgotten.
My disability and my different experience on the wall doesn’t equate to failure. However, I can tell you that we got the sad stares and heard several “ohs” tinged with pity from some other tourists on the wall. At one time that might have made me want to hide, but if I had, the whole trip to China would have been an absolute failure because I would have missed out on something spectacular.
Not everyone gets that “Great Wall moment,” but everyone encounters a few rut steps along the way, especially those of us with disabilities.
I will close with words that I used to say to youth with disabilities all the time: “Have high expectations of yourself. No one else will do it for you. Celebrate the successes, but more importantly, don’t hide from the fear of failure. Embrace the rut steps. They will seem daunting in the moment, but they’ll teach you more than you ever wanted to know.”
Christy Herzing is the Community Access Coordinator at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.