Debra J. White
Until that frigid blustery day in January 1994, my biggest obstacle at work was fretting over the morning coffee and the lunch menu at the cafeteria. On my usual 5:00pm stroll with my two scrappy mutts, Maxine and Judy, my world abruptly changed. A car slammed into me, hurling my body into a ditch. Battered and bloody, I slipped into a coma. My dogs wondered why I couldn’t continue their walk. Thankfully neighbors cared for them during my two month absence.
After a lengthy recover, I slowly adjusted to life as a disabled person. There’d be no more daily jogs, no hustling to get to work on time, or counseling patients at the clinic. That part of my life ended. I could either sit on the pity pot or move on. I chose the latter, reinventing myself as a freelance writer, resuming animal shelter volunteer work, and beginning pet therapy. I later moved to Arizona and volunteered in former Governor Janet Napolitano’s office. Every day became an adventure on how to contribute to my community. Homeless animals appreciate the comforts I provide, such as extra bedding, snacks, or a kind word. Some dogs and cats never experience a shred of kindness in their lives. My soft touch may be their only compassion. Shelter animals don’t see me as disabled, just as a person who cared. Visitors sometimes sneer at dogs with buck teeth or blind cats. I ask them to stop the mockery. Laughing at disabled animals saddens me just as it crushes me when I am the subject of laughter. My usual response is one day you may end up in my chair. Maybe then they will understand and show more tolerance.
I took up writing originally to pass the time when I became unemployable. A second place prize in a 1996 writing contest pushed me to continue. My earlier work was raw, scattered like my brain, and loose but practice molded me into a better writer. I’ve been published in a bunch of national magazines, won more contests, and have my own website. I review books for an animal publication. Despite modest success, publishing barriers still exist. An editor at a writing conference glanced at my motorized scooter then at me. She said there was no chance I’d ever write for her magazine without even reading my material. She judged me not for the content of my literary work but for the presence of my chair, a situation that other disabled people face. Now I faced it. Her ignorance dug deep into my soul so I shifted my efforts to other publications. I love mobility from the accident but not dignity. I shielded tears of humiliation welling up in my eyes.
Dogs were instrumental in my recovery. Judy and Maxine visited me in the hospital at a time when I didn’t know my own name or what happened to me. I recognized both dogs and correctly identified them. Although I have no recollection of their visits, medical records showed slow steady gains after I saw my dogs. In 1999 I adopted Luke, a happy go lucky dog. We became a therapy team and visited patients in a nursing home. Later, we joined Gabriel’s Angels and spent seven years nurturing homeless children by teaching them kindness and compassion. Luke died recently but we both made a difference in the lives of torn and tattered children.
During the four years I volunteered in former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office, I answered phones and sorted mail. Thousands of people wrote or called the governor each week and we responded to each constituent. Every Monday morning, I rolled up the ramp, neatly dressed of course, to the state capitol and proudly served the state of Arizona.
Although I remain shackled to Social Security Disability, I continually work towards economic self-sufficiency. I’m not there yet but one day I will be. In the meantime, I remain independent through volunteer work with unwanted animals, homeless children, freelance writing, and service to the state of Arizona. For a woman who was once declared legally incompetent, that’s not too bad, is it?