Acceptance of Loss, Illness and Disability: Broken but Stronger


The story goes that a 15th-century Japanese shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, discovered an aesthetically pleasing way to repair broken pottery. He added gold dust to the adhesive resin, so that the cracks are emphasized and made attractive, rather than hidden or thrown away.

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Seeing the Scars as a Work of Art

The message: You are more beautiful for having been broken

It is about perspective, learning to see the beauty “in the broken places.”  Seeing the “scars as works of art” makes every individual uniquely special and worthy of admiration, interest, and respect.

Living in a “different” body or having what many would refer to as a “disability” does not have to limit life’s abundance, joy, and meaning. It can enrich and expand it to a new dimension of understanding, depth, and experience that you may not have known previously.

Getting Past Shame and Embarrassment

The concept of shame and embarrassment is a real and painful part of the process of healing ourselves after loss or injury. So much time and energy is spent in trying to hide or not reveal that which makes us different or “weaker” in certain ways. Learning to fully love and accept yourself and your new state of being (which may include simply getting older and losing youthful appearance, losing vision, weight gain, hair loss, and impotence) takes time and a redirection of focus and attention.  Society overwhelms us with commercial messages on what holds value and how we should acquire these goals of perfection. This can weigh on our psyche and our souls, causing much unhappiness and self-judgment.

It can also cause lower self-esteem which, in turn, leads to increased isolation and inward focus with what we are missing, what we can no longer achieve, or how we “once were.” We simply forget about the thousands of activities, pursuits, dreams, and goals that we can still obtain.  These everyday joys are within our reach if we just look for them.  We manifest and project that which we choose to focus on. If we focus on our problems or challenges, they simply take greater role in our lives.  Viewpoints such as “I hate that this has happened to me” or “why me?” can dominate and eventually overtake our regular thoughts and feelings.

Getting to Acceptance

The answer is acceptance, moving on, and living life.  When I was injured at 18, I was a dancer. I worked full time and loved my job at a prestigious fitness club, and was planning on going to a great college in Washington, D.C.  Then I had an accident while driving home from work late one night.  I fell asleep at the wheel, crashed head-on into the median wall and flipped the van that I was driving.  The van had been lent to me by a friend of the family so that I could take this new job which was a one hour drive from my home.  I was forced to take this drive as the location I had previously worked at, which was just a quick 15-minute bus ride from my apartment in Maryland, was no longer an option for me.  The manager of that facility decided that he wanted me sexually and harassed me continually.  My protective step-father called the District Manager after I complained to him and my mother one night, and I was transferred to a new location.  This simple course of events took me on a path that would change my life forever.

Yet, I wanted to LIVE.

From the moment that the man who dragged me from the burning van screamed at me to stay with him as I began to slip into the light, I wanted to live.  This meant enduring pain, humiliation, anger, fear, embarrassment and all the other insecurities you can possible imagine that a young girl would feel when she is helpless and dependent on others to feed, bathe, dress and yes, take care of all bodily functions.

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Rooftop of Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in New York

And live I did, even while in this state of dependence. I loved, made friends, kissed a boy, experienced New York City, went to parties, restaurants, and eventually graduated from rehabilitation to living in a model apartment and passing the test of independence by cooking a meal, and performing all the requirements of daily living by myself.  It took me six months. Some will never have this level of ability but they, nonetheless, overcome and move on to LIVE.  I watch friends who have much higher levels of spinal cord injury fall in love, graduate college, become doctors, professors, marry, have children, adopt children, drive and live full and meaningful lives.

It is because of their example and my need to show the world that not only can it be done, but it can be done exceptionally well, that I created, Disability Inclusive Images. The aim is to bring about understanding, acceptance, equality and relatability. This is not just for those people who’ve never experienced the challenges faced by people with disabilities such as the models in our photo library. It is also for those around the world who have, or will have, disabilities and their loved ones. They will see that they can be and do more than they would have imagined. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and we believe that an image can change perceptions and create a world of fairness and equality.  Only then can we live as fully actualized citizens in society, and it must not be taken for granted. We must still advocate for those with disabilities throughout the world who do not experience the same advantages.

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Imagery for by photographer clockwise from left: Faherty Photography, Danni Valdez, Robert Mitchell, Steven Foster

Not only can those of us with disabilities go on to lead similar lives to our able-bodied peers, but the experience creates additional opportunities we may not have otherwise had. Sure, the rejection by my peers at college, or being left alone in the dorm room when everyone else went out on the town because loading my chair into the car was too much trouble, was painful.  Not getting the cute boy in class because he was incapable of seeing past the chair was hurtful. And having co-workers, staff or the people I rely on to serve me, repair my home, car, or help me in public facilities not take me as seriously as others angered me.  Some just are not able to see someone with a disability as someone with authority or power or who deserves their respect.

These slights, insults and injustices were an extra burden, but learning how to adapt, defend and overcome just made me stronger. We become more resilient, patient, determined, hard-headed and assertive because we must be to survive.  We had to survive the nurse who wanted to abuse us, the doctor who didn’t want to listen to us, the teacher who didn’t want to accommodate us, the restaurant who didn’t want to serve us, the mother who didn’t want us to date their son, the men who felt they couldn’t handle dating us as they didn’t want to “hurt us” or be “limited by us.”

Those experiences are all the by-products of choosing to LIVE and to not give up, to keep on trying, persisting and doing. These realities, experiences and people have formed these golden lines in the cracks of our lives, where we have healed from the breaks which only served to make us stronger and more beautiful in many of the ways below.

The Golden “Gifts” that we receive from our having been “broken”

Increased Empathy and Compassion: This is not only a gift which allows us more meaningful, deeper connections with others. It is also a gift for those who receive it from us. We can live being bitter and victims, or we can work to help others to recover and become whole again.

Pity vs. Empathy: The lack of understanding of what is really required to be happy, and the automatic assumption that someone who has a disability is not leading a fulfilling life, creates a feeling and then an expression of pity.  People with disabilities can relate to each other easily, and have empathy and compassion for the common issues we live with…like people constantly taking our parking spaces!  Empathy is an emotion that we can appreciate. Pity, on the other hand, is an emotion that separates and creates a disconnect with humanity.

This disconnect can also be caused by overly praising or feeling a paternalistic pride in our ability to “overcome” our disability and live our lives in positive way.  This is what the disability community refers to as “inspiration porn.”  Once again, it is derived from pity and focuses on the disability instead of the person.  For example, a woman goes up to a girl in grocery store and says, “Well, isn’t it amazing how you can get out and go shopping by yourself?” Alternatively, she could have said, “Good afternoon, how are you today?  Isn’t this organic section awesome?” and kept the focus on commonality and connection.  Which one do you think makes a person feel more human and normal?

Learning how to “accommodate” yourself: Perfectionists understand the pain and anxiety caused by needing to live up to the standards they impose upon themselves.  When you lose control over an aspect of your life via disability or illness, you must begin to give yourself the necessary time and understanding to either do things differently, take more time, or not do them at all and find alternatives. This leads to…

Self-acceptance: When you finally accept that it is OK to not be able to do it the way you used to. To be able to laugh at yourself or look back on a painful memory (such as falling out of your chair in front of a group of people, peeing on your boyfriends couch in college, or having to leave your job because you can no longer handle the physical requirements) and realize how it, or what you CANNOT do, doesn’t define you.

To experience the kindness of strangers: The decency of people is on full display when you are in a position of weakness or vulnerability.  SO MANY times, I have been touched by the kind words, the offer of assistance, or the simple acts of kindness from someone I don’t even know. It has literally brought tears to my eyes to witness it.

Value of the “weed eater:” My friend Gina coined the phrase in her hilarious dating series when she said the mother whom she refers to as the Dali Mama told her that those who would not choose to date, befriend or employ you are probably not the types of people you would want in your life anyway.

“Honey, that wheelchair is like a weed eater. Those men who don’t want you because of your chair, you shouldn’t want anyway. Can you imagine if you had married one of those guys before the accident, then had your accident and they left you in your darkest hour?”

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Well, this goes for anyone who wouldn’t want you because of your age, income, looks, weight, etc.  We want to be valued for who we are inside, and the people who are up for that level of depth are truly rare.  It may be less easy to find them, and you may only get one email a day compared to 300 for the same profile without being in a wheelchair, but that one…when they arrive, is all you need.

Perspective and gratitude:  When you experience great loss, you learn to appreciate the little things more. It is a palatable experience of gratitude for what remains. The cool fresh linen pillow on your face after a long day, being able to get out and hear a great band, having the opportunity to smell the sea, breathe in the fresh air in nature, or simply having a day where you are able to enjoy life without the pain or illness, or lack of access preventing you from being fully present.

What people fail to fully appreciate is that what they think they see on the surface is not necessarily the reality.  When they encounter a person who is broken on the outside, such as someone whose physical attributes clearly show that they are struggling or have experienced a loss, the immediate inclination is toward pity (poor thing), curiosity (what happened to you?) or a desire to heal (I will pray for you). This is human nature and based on years of ingrained social edicts on what makes for a good and happy life. This is based more on Darwinian Theory than on today’s more evolved truths.

The truth is beyond what we can see on the surface with our eyes.   It is most often the hidden wounds that are the greatest sources of pain and loss.

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Imagine that you had to always wear a sign around your neck that shows the world where you have been broken.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have to wear a sign around your neck that shows the world where you have been broken: a lost child, divorce, betrayal, self-esteem, self-sabotage. These are not always visible to the public, but create more internal struggles than are visible on the outside.

Rebuilding self-esteem – the final step to becoming whole

While rebuilding a life from a new reality, such as loss of a dog, divorce, or disability, it takes time to find your footing and rebuild the channels to which you can turn on your sense of self-worth and forge a new identity.  I was a dancer, a mother, a wife. Who am I now? Just because you can’t rely on your old way of being alive to get that sense of wellbeing and sense of accomplishment, doesn’t mean you can’t find it at all.  Rebuild other pathways…find your passion and your voice and continue to make an impact on the world.

Others can be inspired, not just by your living with a disability, but by the true gifts that reside within you, by the golden strengths that are uniquely you.  End each day with a sense of accomplishment, from choosing to LIVE…not being ashamed, finding your passion, and proving to yourself and others…that you may have been broken, but you have so much more beauty to offer.

Follow Deborah of Facebook and  Twitter. If you are interested in having her a speaker on this topic or others, you can request here: Speaking Request.

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Deborah Davis

Deborah is a Speaker, Disability Inclusion Consultant, Entrepreneur, Writer and Business Owner of Wheelchair Lifestyle Enterprise Push Living Inc.

She was a Former Dancer, Accident Survivor (C 6-7 Spinal Cord Injury resulting in incomplete Quadriplegia 1985), College grad (BBA Finance 1991 U of Miami), with a background in Sales and Marketing and Non Profit Development and Management.

She is now embarked on new path creating a market for Disability Inclusive Stock Images with the creation of and publishing an online enterprise: The mission is to create Inclusion for people with disabilities through stock images for advertising, marketing and editorial uses, providing accessible properties for travel, swap or purchase, publishing an online magazine for improved health and well-being, providing information and opportunities for Accessible Travel, and operating an online store with products that improve lives.

She is most passionate about building a network of people with disabilities who are empowering, supporting and creating a more inclusive world. Personally, she is a mother of two beautiful, wise and exceptionally bright young women, and residing in South Florida.

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