18 years ago I attended my freshman orientation at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. I was thrilled to be starting the new chapter of my life, in what has been my favorite city since a family vacation there when I was 12. Simultaneously, as this major transition in my life, I was told that, among other side effects, I was losing my ability to walk. Just when I was at the age of some independence, it was already being cut short and taken away from me.
Needless to say, I cut my own time there very short. I spent only one brief semester in my beloved city. I will never forget those few short months, not only were my plans for the future crumbling around me but so was America as we knew it. 9/11 happened at the same time as my own personal disaster. I remember the fear I had personally and also everywhere I looked.
Unknowns are very scary, and yes everyone does face many unknowns in life. There is a large difference between “you have a chance to be hit by a bus as you cross the street” and being diagnosed with a genetic disease that will put you in a wheelchair within 10yrs.
As the time came for me to start classes I found myself literally counting the number of steps to each class, down the 9 flights of stairs in the middle of the night for yet another fire alarm, or to the English as a Second Language I taught once a week in North Philly. 138, 139, 140…. I was becoming so focused on what was coming that I stopped paying attention to anything else. I was all of a sudden forced to race into two new worlds at the same time. One as young adult fighting to find her place in the world, and the other a disabled women trying to navigate life in an abled man’s world.
This week I was given the chance to revisit the place where both of these journeys began. Now though I am older, a wheelchair user, wife, and mother. Guess what? I still have a crush on Temple, Philly and the people who live there. As I sat in the student union and drank coffee, I watched the co-eds talk and laugh amongst themselves, and felt a pang of regret that I opted out of my chance for that comraderie. As we navigated the accessible stops of the subway (septa) I was struck by how accessible the city could have been for me.
Then I would facetime my family ( my husband and 2 sons ) at the end of each day, and I knew I did not Opt-out but in. The path I chose to get where I am is not traditional. Not without setbacks and tears, but that path has helped to make me the person I am today.