In Someone Else’s Shoes

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PUZZLES & CAMO BY SHELLY HUHTANEN

She knew these parents care for their children each and every day, knowing the difficulties they face. These parents may struggle each day to do something as simple as transporting them to school.

I’ve always wondered if there would be more empathy in the world for people with disabilities, or for families who are raising children with disabilities, if those not affected could live in our shoes for a couple of days or even a few weeks. Then maybe, just maybe, others would understand and start to realize that there is always room to make things better for everyone. It could be something as simple as making sure crosswalks are cleared or ensuring that music is turned down to a reasonable level at shopping centers. If there was a way to truly empathize with those who live with disabilities, then we could all live with a sense of awareness that could affect people at a level that could change the way they live their lives each day.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who said something to me that was so compelling, I had to stop her mid-sentence and put it in my phone so I wouldn’t forget. It was such an “aha” moment that I grabbed her arm over the table and asked her if I could share her revelation with others.

Her son, unfortunately, broke his leg about six months ago. It was such a traumatic spiral fracture that there was concern if his leg would fully heal in his cast. I remember her telling me how frightened she was once she realized how severe the fracture was to his leg. She told me how exhausted and depressed she had become because it was so much more difficult to care for him. She had to help him bathe and help him get along through the day. She has a daughter too, so she talked about how challenging it was to make sure her daughter got to do all the things she wanted to do with sports and playing with her friends.

Her husband had to travel overseas for a trip. She continued to tell me how she became more exhausted and depressed because then she had to do everything alone. She recalls having to push her son in a wheelchair to school every morning. The roads were bumpy with cracks everywhere she looked. Every morning she would cringe as she would go over a crack or a bump because she was so worried that it would knock her son’s leg and that could be just enough to affect her son’s injury, not allowing it to heal properly.

Her friends would walk by and say, “Why don’t you just put the wheelchair in the back of the car and slide your son in the backseat? You can just drive him to school.” She got more emotional and said, “Shelly, I couldn’t pick up the wheelchair. I had no idea they were so heavy.” The only way she felt she could survive was to wheel him to school over the bumpy and cracked roads. She was frustrated that everyone thought it wasn’t that bad because they offered quick fixes, such as just “tossing” his gargantuan wheelchair in the back of the car each morning and afternoon. She later said, “I felt so alone and helpless. I was frustrated, angry and sad.”

She looked over the table at me and said, “How do parents do this every day for their children? I only had to do this for a couple of weeks and it almost broke me.” I smiled because, for once, I heard a mom get it whose sense of normalcy is raising two typical children. I agreed with her, “It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard when you feel alone and you only hear advice from those who really don’t understand.”

I later told her that I was sorry that she had to endure that alone. Feeling alone is not fun. Believe me, I know. She started to ask me questions about the roads, “Who do I talk to about fixing those roads so other parents don’t have to endure what I did with my son?” She then asked, “I wonder how many children are in wheelchairs here at Fort Benning. Do you think there are some things we could do to help them?”

Her questions and concern warmed my heart. Even though she cared for her son while he was in a cast and transported him in a wheelchair for only a few weeks, the experience forced her to empathize with parents who did this not just for a few weeks, but perhaps for the rest of their lives. I could tell she realized that after her son healed, she was able to go back to her sense of normalcy, but she knew in her heart, there was a community of parents who would never be able to experience that sense of “normalcy” again. She knew these parents care for their children each and every day, knowing the difficulties they face. These parents may struggle each day to do something as simple as transporting them to school. These parents are the true heroes, heroes that need to be seen. •

PUZZLES & CAMO
16Shelley Huhtanen is an Army wife with two children, one with autism, whose husband is currently stationed at Fort Benning, GA. She is an autism advocate and currently the parent liaison for the Academy for Exceptional Learners.