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How Do You Define Independence?

June 25, 2021
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How Do You Define Independence?

How do you define independence? Does independence mean you are not reliant on anyone or any mobility device? I believe independence is something greater than that.

Dependence

Immediately after my injury, I became completely dependent on others in all aspects of my daily life. Dressing, bathing, bladder and bowel care, eating, drinking. About two weeks after my injury, I remember the first time I was able to scratch an itch on my nose. Oh, my heavens… That was a glorious feeling of accomplishment.

Slowly, with the use of adaptive devices, I learned to use a fork or spoon to feed myself. Putting a shirt over my head was an accomplishment, but I still needed assistance fastening my bra. After my spasticity was under control, I could transfer in and out of my chair, but always wanted someone standing by “just in case.” The time I went to bed was dependent on the time my mom or grandma went to bed.

A glimmer of hope

Nine years after my injury, I met Leslie Ostrander at the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant; I was representing Kentucky, she was there on behalf of the state of Georgia. Leslie was the first female quad I’d met who was independent in her personal care. I didn’t even know this was possible! Once I heard that I could learn to do some of my own personal care, I craved it. And slowly, very slowly, I was able to become more independent; not as independent as Leslie, but doing what my abilities allowed me to safely accomplish.

But am I independent?

When I’m asked if I live independently, I answer yes. Why? Because I:

  • Live in my own accessible condo.
  • Transfer in and out of bed by myself.
  • Work, drive, visit with friends and family, and live a mostly “normal” life.
  • And yet I have help three mornings a week with showering and housework.

Defining Independence

Merriam-Webster’s definition of independence is “the quality or state of not being under the control of, reliant on, or connected with someone or something else.” Yes, I am reliant on someone’s help, but I am not under their control. I am responsible for finding, hiring, and keeping a personal care attendant – and I am in charge of the care in which they assist me. Therefore, I live life independently.

I believe that independence does not necessarily mean the absence of help or assistance. For the high level quad who needs assistance with eating or other activities of daily living, independence can be achieved through a power chair, assistive technology and computers, and having a good personal care attendant who will listen and follow through on helping with the daily necessities of life. Likewise, a person with MS may be dependent on a cane for stability while walking. While we may view one person as more independent than the other, these individuals are simply on opposite ends on a continuum of independence.

Independence comes at a cost

Leslie and I have discussed this concept of independence as a continuum many times. Although she’s completely independent in her personal care, the help I receive a few days a week saves me time and energy for other activities. In my situation, achieving complete independence (i.e., no help with activities of daily living) would actually lead to losses in other areas of my daily life. Time and energy are more valuable to me than being completely “independent.”

Finally, as humans – abled-bodied or disabled – shouldn’t we all be dependent on each other? Maybe inter-dependent is a better, less psychologically-charged word. We all need the support, encouragement, and love of others. Individuals with disabilities are just as capable of providing these emotional needs as an able-bodied individual.

I choose to define independence as a continuum of basic needs being fulfilled by ourselves and those we surround ourselves with, in order to live a healthy and active life.

Here are a few tips you can build upon to be more independent:

  • Start with adaptive devices. There may come a time when you will no longer need these tools.
  • Focus on the things you can do. A positive, adventurous, out-of-my-comfort-zone perspective can help you gain more independence. Listen to my story of the risk I decided to take here that led to a giant leap in independence.
  • Independence is about being your best advocate.
  • Abled-bodied or disabled – we all depend on each other.
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Even you can live the impossible when life doesn't go as planned

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Jenny Smith

Jenny Smith

After a spinal cord injury at 16, I discovered that a wheelchair could take me places I never dared to imagined.

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