(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, October 16, 2002)
I was mulling over how to introduce a series of articles on the many aspects of various disabilities. Then something happened that symbolizes exactly what I wanted to say about the experience of living with a disability.
For the first time, my "fur-son," Ray Lee, who was born in early 1991, couldn't jump onto the cedar chest next to the table where I often sit to watch TV. Knowing that he likes to sleep in the window behind the chest or step up from there to my table so he can spread himself across my newspaper, I lifted him myself and set him on the chest. He gratefully managed the next step up to the table, where he draped himself over a sack full of fabric, which provided both cushion and the lovely crinkle of plastic.
Of course, I knew this day would come. Besides his advanced age, for half his life Ray Lee has had arthritis that began in his feet. He also sleeps a lot more than he used to, which you can only notice with a cat if you're really paying attention.
In spite of his growing disability, Ray Lee doesn't feel sorry for himself, as some humans in his situation might. We've always made sure to have at least one younger "sibling" to keep our older felines energized. That role now belongs to our 2 1/2 year-old "fur-daughter," Baxter, who loves to hunt and fight.
Since Baxter joined the family in late 2000, Ray Lee has tolerated her exuberance, even while she has teased and taunted him to stand up for himself. She often runs straight at him then leaps over him at the last second, or she walks up and bats him across the head, then runs away to fight another day. For his part, Ray Lee has taught his little "sister" how to nose-kiss, and he occasionally joins her in an exciting race from one end of the house to the other. So he's not altogether invalid, in spite of being an octogenarian, in cat years.
The upshot of this little tale occurred a few hours later. Naturally, I feared I might have to help him up to the chest from then on. But the next time he couldn't jump up there and I stood up to help him, he scampered around my chair and hopped onto the seat, which is a little over three inches lower than the chest, and from there, up to the table. He knew what he wanted, and he figured out how to get it himself, in spite of his disability.
This precious cat, with his natural feline sense of independence even as he relies so much on me, symbolizes the spirit of most disabled people. We hate to be dependent, but sometimes we have no choice. At other times we just need to figure out how to get the job done a different way.
I represent another aspect to the moral of this little cat-tale. While I stand ready to help Ray Lee whenever he needs it, I let him do what he can for himself so he can maintain his self-esteem.
This is exactly what disabled people want. We don't need to be swaddled in cotton wool, protected from every one of life's bumps and bruises; we do not want to be patronized, treated as if we can't make a decision on our own; and we cannot survive without someone who loves us enough to provide help when we truly need it. Like every other human being, a disabled person thrives best in a perfectly balanced relationship of interdependence.
That balance is the tricky part. Where disability is concerned, people often go to extremes, for good or ill. Either they do too much or too little. Many people, sad but true, choose to do nothing at all.
In upcoming articles on this web site, I'll discuss what people with various disabilities need to be productive citizens. Like Ray Lee, we might need help, but we also want to be useful. Ray Lee does that for me by being his lovable, cuddly self.