Breaking Down One Wall at A Time by Ryan Atkins


My girlfriend and I were seated at a nice restaurant as we eagerly awaited the chance to order our meals. I salivated at the thought of the barbecue ribs. A server came to our table and in his chivalrous way, asked my girlfriend what she would like to eat first. After taking her order, he said it would be right out and I prepared to order. As I began to open my mouth, I watched him close his notes as he began walking away without even looking up at me. I quickly yelled out in an insulted tone, “Excuse me, I would like to order as well.” He turned around, seemingly befuddled over the fact that I responded. Did he really not notice me? Did he not think I was capable of speaking? Did he not think I may actually have come to enjoy some particularly delicious barbecued ribs? He apologized as he fumbled through his notes, red in the face, presumably embarrassed at his indiscretion.

It is situations like this that remind me how different I look to the outside world in a power wheelchair operated by a mouthpiece. After a freak car accident left me paralyzed below the shoulders in November 2009, I have been on the journey of a lifetime that goes well beyond the physical limitations. I started this fall to begin documenting the ups and downs of my journey to give a front row seat to what’s been going on in my mind and the day-to-day experiences I face.

After enough dinners and time out with friends, sometimes shying away from being in public has more of an appeal. From encountering long stares in public places to overly eccentric smiles, it often feels more convenient to just avoid it altogether in order to protect my psyche.  In the eye of the American public I’m led to feel so otherworldly, simply due to the fact that I physically cannot move certain parts of my body.

Looking through the lens of my new viewpoint has allowed me to reflect on the world around me in a way I never would have thought possible. It is easy to quickly get frustrated when I’m treated differently at a restaurant or when a kid stares and points while asking his parents what is wrong with me. However, it’s often made me reflect on how I’m also guilty of being quick to judge, based on nothing more than a superficial assessment of people. Skin color, dialect, socioeconomic background, and various physical differences all make for a subtle preconceived idea in my head about someone, and the way I treat them often reflects that. I’ve learned that interacting with just one person who is in some way different from me can reshape my worldview when I actually take the time to look beyond the specific difference that sticks out. Why should I hold back an opportunity for someone to experience the same thing when it comes to my paralysis?

Next time, rather than acting annoyed and puffing out my paralyzed chest, I can carry myself in a way that garners respect and opens up a conversation, with the hope that a stereotype can be broken one person at a time. As each wall gets broken down, people are able to see that a wheelchair and lifeless limbs do not define me. As I come to expect others to be open to my current difference, I have learned to be open-minded towards the situations of others as well.

Ryan Atkins



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