Life does not end with disability; it just takes a different turn

Recently, Léonie Watson published a blog post telling the story of her sight loss. With a lot of honesty, she describes her journey from being fully-sighted to totally blind, due to diabetes. This story is also about how she overcame this ordeal, retook control over her computer thanks to screen readers, and “rediscovered [her] love for learning”. Up to the point where she graduated in Computer Science, and went back working as a Web developer.

What Léonie does not tell, however, is the fact that she is one of the most respected accessibility consultant out there, modestly mentioning that she is currently “working and collaborating with lots of smart and interesting people” — meaning she is actually a member of The Paciello Group’s all-star team.

And that fact, to me, holds a very important message, regarding disability, and how human beings deal with it.

Here is the comment I posted on her blog:

Léonie, thanks for sharing, and for the wonderful reading.
Beyond the sheer beauty of this text, personally I read this powerful and important message: life does not end with disability. It takes a different turn, but it’s not a full stop.

It’s a common thought, among able-bodied people, that they’d rather die than experience disability. In best cases, those people pity the persons with disabilities, applauding their “courage”, stating that they couldn’t bear going through that for themselves.

But generally that’s not true. You don’t die of getting some form of impairment, and unless you were prone to it initially, you don’t feel like committing suicide. You cope with it, and go on with your life, only on different terms.

I used to have this way of thinking, as a youngster. Becoming paraplegic was one of my greatest fears in life (that, and a global thermonuclear war). I knew people who needed wheelchairs, and to me it seemed like a dreadful prospect, far beyond what I could possibly bear. One day, at the age of 21, I fell off a cliff (because of my amazing carelessness – being young and healthy makes you believe that you are invincible and immortal, of course). During the 10-meter fall, I had plenty of time to realise that I might be dead in a second. But my very first reaction, after landing, was to yell “I can feel my legs!”, as if it was the best news ever, better than being actually alive.

I have evolved from that state of mind. Ironically, later on I was diagnosed with spondylitis, which I had since birth, but it only started to bug me in my twenties. So when I fell from this cliff, I was actually on my way to being less able, some day. But that is not what made me change my mindset; it’s working and meeting with people with disabilities, thanks to my job as an accessibility consultant. I routinely meet people who live their life fully, albeit dealing with disability every single day.

You are a living proof that life isn’t less valuable when disability occurs. You have transcended your condition, and have become one of the most highly-regarded figures in the accessibility field, at a world-wide scale. Would you have got that level of fame and respect in your professional community, should you have remained just-any-other-Web-developer? Likely not.

The obvious mistake would be to think that you achieved this due to your being blind (like, “hey, that’s cheating, you use screen readers all the time!”); but that would be missing the point. You are there in spite of your blindness, and that is no small feat. There are many blind Web professionals out there, and very few acquire your status and recognition.

I am not saying either that getting blind was a good thing. Losing sight sucks. Big time. None should go through what you lived (and don’t blame yourself too much for what happened. Having diabetes is unfair, and without testimonies like yours, you couldn’t really know. The physicians who did not find the appropriate words are morons). It would be absurd to count on disability to become an extraordinary person. You were an extraordinary person from the beginning. Everybody is an extraordinary person inside, they just need something to reveal it, and overcoming disability is one of those things.

Thanks again for sharing your story, may it be a source of inspiration for everyone.

Call me a naive, if you wish, but I truly believe in this: we all have this will to live deeply rooted inside, that allows us to go on, whichever form it takes. Facing challenges is what human beings do best.

People with disabilities are constantly being challenged, not always for good reasons. They do not want pity; they do not want mercy. They just want to live their lives, and they expect their fellow humans to build, together, a world that leaves room for everybody.

That, my friends, is a beautiful concept: it’s called inclusion.

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