What if impaired mobility didn't bring increased isolation?

Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods lives in Minneapolis and is a writer, blogger and mother.
Courtesy Haddayr Copley-Woods

I read an account in the paper recently that made me cry. And then it made me furious.

It was a story about Don Langland, a 79-year-old warmly loved and deeply religious man from Pequot Lakes, Minn., who duct-taped a shotgun to his crutch and killed himself.

The article described, in vivid and pitying detail, his failing eyesight. His loss of coordination. His shuffling gait. How a once active and vigorous master carpenter who kept entire blueprints in his head was embarrassed by bouts of confusion and spent most of his time inside, in front of the T.V.

Elder suicide rates are rising, and experts are trotting out the same suggestions for tackling the problem they always do: recognizing and treating depression. Delaying the onset of disabling illnesses.

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These are fine ideas, in and of themselves. But they address the symptoms of the problem -- not the problem itself.

The problem is isolation, dependence and stigma. If you were facing these issues after a long life of independence and easy social acceptance, you'd be depressed, too.

There's this nod that disabled people often exchange when we see each other on the street. The nod says: Here is a look that does not see you as freakish or frightening or sad. Here is a greeting that acknowledges we are in this together. Here is a nod that says: I noticed you, and both of us know how damn heavy the doors at the end of this skyway are, even if nobody else does. Some call it, with pride, "The Cripple Nod."

There are some people who do not return the Cripple Nod. Some are busy and not paying attention. Some truly do not see what they might have in common with me. And some, sadly, are ashamed to be associated with another disabled person.

And I've noticed a demographic truism that is so dependable I have nearly given up trying: Elderly disabled people, overwhelmingly, do not return the nod. They see me coming and look determinedly away. I am not like her, their stances say. The exceptions to this rule are rare.

But what if disability did not inexorably lead to isolation, dependence, and a nursing home? What if, when the time came for mobility devices, we had affordable, stylish choices? What if we saw them in use around us every day, among people of all ages? What if, most important, disability did not mean loss of work and income, because every workplace was accessible and every job provided a living wage?

What if failing eyesight or legs did not automatically mean an inability to travel alone, because we had excellent, accessible public transportation? What if there was no shame in public bouts of memory loss?

What if dementia or severe mobility impairment did not mean a nursing home or days at a time with nothing to do but watch TV? What if it meant a dedicated, professional staff in your own home and paid leave for your loved ones to look after you? What if you had access to safe, enjoyable outdoor exercise every day, and stimulating, pleasant company?

What if there were no dirty, judgmental looks thrown at people in motorized scooters?

I keep thinking about Langland's horrifying last use for his crutch. Crutches, despite common negative nomenclature, are for me a device to lift me up. To make me strong and fast. To give me independence. He, heartbreakingly, couldn't see it that way.

I want to live in a world where he could have.


Haddayr Copley-Woods, Minneapolis, is a copywriter, blogger and mother.