Monday, February 4, 2013

Adaptive Living – Adjusting Socially

Learning how to brush my teeth or use a fork with my left hand after I lost the use of my right hand due to an accidental knifing injury was surprisingly easy. So was learning to hold my two-year-old son, and even learning to drive our stick shift car with my left hand. When one has no choice but to use different parts of the body to function, the brain and body pick it up quickly. 

But what came much more slowly was dealing with people: reactions, actions, and social customs. 
Take something as simple as a handshake.  It became terribly awkward when grasping the person’s hand was out of the question. Some well-intentioned friends suggested I just “boldly stick that hand out there” and let the other person do the handshaking. But what I found, however, is that people were more freaked out when they received from me a completely limp hand, either because it felt so abnormal or because they hadn’t noticed my paralysis until that moment when the “dead” hand was in theirs. Inevitably, the remaining visit or conversation was awkward for both of us. 

Former Senator Bob Dole adapts to a
permanent disability.
To adjust socially to the simple and common handshake greeting, I took what I called the Bob Dole approach. As you may know, former Kansas Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole experienceed a total permanent disability from a war injury that severely limited his right-hand mobility – a tough row to hoe for a politician whose job involves a lot of handshaking! To compensate for this problem, he did two things: shook with his left hand and kept his right hand occupied, usually by holding a pencil, pen, or some other “prop.”  As I’ve learned from personal experience, the oddity of proactively putting the left hand out for the handshake often goes unnoticed, or is easily accepted without explanation, if I’m holding things in my right hand. 

Five tips on human relations after a permanent disability

If you’ve experienced a sudden and permanent disability, one unavoidable challenge is reentry – getting out of the hospital and getting out of the home: reengaging with family, friends, the public, and coworkers.  

In two previous articles (Adaptive Living – Adjusting Mentally and Adaptive Living – Adjusting Physically), we introduced the physical challenges of mobility and mental challenges of dealing with your loss. But getting back in the game of life socially when you’ve developed a physical disability is going to be important for you. This is true whether for the necessity of making a living and being a consumer or even if to fulfill the need to “be a mensch” – to engage with other humans, to have friends, to be involved and connected socially.  

How you do this after developing a total permanent disability will change. Both strangers and those who know you well will often not know how to act normal around you. When your new impairment is obvious, they and you may feel awkward, as my handshake example demonstrates. 

Here are some tips to adapting socially to your new physical immobility, some from my own experiences and some from the experiences of others with a permanent disability.
Tip #1: Seek out the empathetic
Neither your physical therapist nor occupational therapist is equipped to help you adjust socially.  Even your well-intentioned friends and family may have trouble offering more than sympathy. But empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is readily available from those who’ve been through what you’re going through. While I certainly don’t advise you to abandon your friends and family, you will find adjusting socially with your new disability is easier when you expand your support community to include fellow disabled. 

Finding an empathetic support community is very easy online using standard search engines (in the search string, use the name of your disability plus your geographic area and the word “network” or “support”), or ask a local counselor/mental therapist.
Tip #2:  Allow more time for regular activities
Sure: there are laws to make life more accessible to the disabled. But the reality is that the world often doesn’t know or follow the rules. 

For example, if you’ve ever had a temporary or permanent injury that puts you in a wheel chair, you may be half way down the block when you find your way blocked because tree root growth has pushed up the sidewalk so high that you cannot get over it. Or you discover that your standard driving route involves a street so steep that it’s impossible to wheelchair your way up the sidewalk without rolling back down. 

If you have a total permanent disability,
allow more time for activities.
My paraplegic friend Julian shared with me his challenge of dealing with public transportation; the first time he tried to take the bus to an appointment, the first two buses that went by his stop never stopped for him! Maybe it’s because the driver didn’t want the bother of dealing with a wheelchair passenger, or maybe it was because the light was broken or the bus was too full. Nonetheless, he missed his appointment.

The reality is that normal activities may take more time as you seek out alternate solutions or alternate routes due to your immobility. Schedule more time and you’ll find the adjustment period much smoother.
Tip #3:  Seek psychological help
While the trained mental health professional may not have the same level of  empathy as the fellow disabled, they are prepared to help you adjust socially to challenges like how to deal with the reactions of others who may find your handicap unsettling. They can also help you prepare for the unique challenges of functioning beyond your home. 
Tip#4:  Use a little humor
I have found that one of the easiest ways to help people relax and be comfortable in spite of my obvious disability is to employ a bit of humor. Laughter is a great outlet for tension. When they see that you can laugh about it, they are often more more at ease. Ask me for examples and I’m happy to share via comments. 
Tip #5:  Become an advocate
A gratifying way to reengage with the world after your disability is turn your focus outward;  use your disability to improve the world for others with disabilities. Some of the greatest local and national improvements for the disabled have come about due to the advocacy of those who are disabled. Start by looking at those things that frustrate your mobility the most – this is often the best place to begin your advocacy

Get help on getting out in the world is a great place to start.You’ll find literally thousands of resources on benefits, civil rights, community life, education, emergency preparedness, employment, health, housing, technology and transportation for people with disabilities, their families, Veterans, educators, employers and others.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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