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Life After Paralysis is a blog that represents a variety of paralysis community members. It is a place for open conversation about the issues and the interests of people living with paralysis, their family, friends, caregivers, and the professionals that serve them. Comments are welcome!
The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The Power Of Fleeting Impressions

There are moments in our lives when making a good impression is extremely important. In some cases a first impression, no matter how short, might be the only one that matters.  Examples of such occasions include when posting a profile for online dating, meeting someone for a blind date or entering a room for a job interview.

All of the above are important milestones, but there are many other opportunities to make a good impression on people that should not be ignored. Those of us who use wheelchairs or similar mobility devices have the ability to stand out in a crowd, even if simply going about our daily business. Whether out shopping or simply rolling down a sidewalk, it is likely that some curious child is keeping an eye on us while seeking an opportunity to ask why we use a wheelchair, scooter, cane or whatever. With luck, there will be time to answer before a horrified parent grabs an arm and drags the youngster away. That brief instance and how we handle it can have a real impact on the child's impressions, attitudes and understanding of who we are and will likely remain in the young memory bank long after we are gone.

I was reminded of the above when I was invited to be the "Show and Tell" subject for my middle grandson's kindergarten class. Please understand that my careers have provided me with dozens of opportunities to do public speaking, sometimes to audiences of hundreds of people. None of those events created more apprehension than the pending discussion with about 30 bright-eyed kindergarteners, or raised such concerns about what might be brought up in the Question and Answer period to follow. After all, I had a sneaking hunch that I was to be the first Grandpa in a power wheelchair--at least in that classroom--to play the Show & Tell role normally reserved for frogs, lizards, pet rabbits, pretty rocks and seashells found on vacation beaches.

The impression I made, even though a fleeting one, had the potential to influence the attitudes of 30 young minds as they grew older and interacted with others like me throughout their lives.

Once my grandson had finished introducing me to his classmates, it was my turn. My demonstration of my power wheelchair's ability to tilt, recline and spin around quickly was a real crowd-pleaser, as I figured it would be. I also learned that two of the children had grandparents who used manual wheelchairs, and another had a Dad who had lost his leg in a war. We had a connection.

My audience was engaged and curious, so one of the first questions asked was "Why can't you walk?" Thankfully I have been asked that question many times while shopping, loading into my van or just rolling down the street, and the questioners were usually about my grandsons' ages. I knew from experience that it's possible to explain the effects of damage to a spinal cord without getting too technical, and it gave me a chance to discuss the importance of wearing helmets and appropriate padding while biking, skiing and skateboarding.

The news that I drive from my wheelchair created more excitement, and generated even more questions. When it was time for me to depart, the entire class followed me outside to the parking lot. The remote operation of my van's wheelchair lift was a great hit with the young crowd, and they enjoyed seeing the hand controls and how the chair locked in place behind the steering wheel. In one final demonstration, my grandson operated the lift to lower himself to the ground and rejoin his classmates so they could head back inside the school. It was a great day, and very rewarding.

Not every opportunity to create a good first impression comes with such a large and impressionable audience, but each such occasion can be equally important. How we interact with the people who pass through our lives on a regular basis can influence the manner in which they treat those who follow in our tire tracks, even if their disabilities are different than ours. I believe that we actually have an obligation to create positive attitudes by how we treat those around us.

Think back to the number of people you meet, or pass on the sidewalk, each week. It is easy to smile and look them in the eye, which is likely to elicit a smile in return. The teller at the bank, checkout clerk at the grocery store, waiter at the local cafe, gas station attendant or lady behind the deli counter serve dozens of customers each day, but how many of those patrons smile, call them by name and thank them for their assistance? Probably not many, despite the fact that they wear nametags.

We can very easily be the person who brightens up their day, and we need to do just that. After all, the first impression we make on those around us may become their lasting impression of people with disabilities as a whole. That can be a good thing if we do our part to make it so.

© 2014 Michael Collins | Like Mike on Facebook
Posted by Community Admin on Aug 5, 2014 1:48 PM America/New_York