by: Nerissa Cannon

Nerissa is one of the original GRIT Freedom Chair Trailblazers! Her journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life despite a disabling condition.

Often the barriers that limit a disabled individual’s independence or access to an activity are manmade. In some circumstances, however, the barriers we face might be those we create ourselves. I experienced this frustration at a recent kayaking event at Tully Lake in Royalston, Massachusetts with the North Quabbin Trails Association (NQTA). I also learned something about how such barriers can be overcome.

I love kayaking, but I haven’t been able to do it very often. Eager to get down to the water’s edge, into my kayak, and on the lake, I raced down the forest trail in my GRIT Freedom Chair. However, I met a series of large, steep steps down to the water’s edge. Not wanting to spend too much time pondering why they inserted steps instead of just smoothing the ground into a long ramp, I tried to problem-solve so I could get down quickly. Being irrationally independent, I decided to squeeze just to the side of the steps into the bushes. Of course, those bushes were poison ivy, and my aversion to asking for help was rewarded with 3 weeks of itchy arms and ankles. In my refusal to ask for assistance, I got hung up going down one VERY steep step. The step was too steep for my Freedom Chair’s footplate to clear, and I had to swallow my pride and ask my friend to lift my front wheel up and pull me forward.

Nursing my slightly bruised ego, I waited at the water’s edge while others of our group brought the kayaks down to line up for the launch. Sitting by the water, watching other people work was incredibly difficult. I felt singled out and useless. While there were a variety of disabilities in our group, with a variety of assistive devices, most folks were ambulatory, and I was the only one using a wheelchair. Prior to getting sick I prided myself on being a muscle that could be counted on in any group. I proudly referred to myself as “tiny, but mighty.” Coming face to face with the fact that I was unable to be a physically-equal, contributing member to the group had my emotions silently reeling.

Not soon enough, we could finally get into the kayaks and launch out onto the lake. As soon as I felt the solid ground beneath the kayak give way to a fluid foundation, the thoughts and feelings I had on shore dissipated. While I have kayaked before, I had never done so in a large group. Where the differences in mobility on land were dramatic, once on the water, everyone was an equal. Everyone was using the same mobility vehicle. Everyone was on the same level. I could look each person in the eye. We were all experiencing the same beautiful gifts of nature together, and I was doing so independently.

My Service Dog, Cash, enjoys kayaking with me!

While I was enjoying the blissful freedom the kayak gave me, I couldn’t help but notice that others in our group needed a little assistance due to their own personal disability. One was towed out to the main section of the lake by canoe and let off because he didn’t yet have the stamina for the full lake journey. Another was backseat in a 2-person kayak because he didn’t quite have the coordination to fully propel the kayak reliably. Yet one more got too tired to keep going with the bulk of the group. I, personally, accompanied and encouraged him all the way back to the launch point.

Yet for these individuals, these limitations on the lake didn’t hinder their ability to enjoy themselves. Getting help, however much or little, allowed them to reach where they could push themselves and have a wonderful experience. I took their courage and example to heart when I got back to shore, knowing there was very little chance I was going to get up the steps with my Freedom Chair on my own. I took a deep breath and asked for help. There was no hesitation or judgment from the two kind souls that lifted me and my chair up the steps.

My friend who helped me up and down the steps and brought in so many kayaks. I let him relax in my hammock during lunch as a “thank you.”

I sat in a little grove, talking to people as the kayaks were hauled one by one up those steps and put in their place. My friend returned again and again to help bring in the boats as I sat in my chair and yearned to help. Back on land, once again I was judging myself for my limitations. In that mindset, I’ve found it’s easy to assume that others don’t truly want to help you. That they resent the fact that they are somehow “picking up the slack.” My observations on the water that day, however, led me to open up and ask my friend how he felt helping me and the others above and beyond his share.

It speaks volumes that he was surprised by my question. Helping me or the others is not something he gave a second thought to. The goal was to get everyone on the water, in a kayak, having fun, and he just helped where he saw help was needed to accomplish that goal. We weren’t viewed as helpless. We were simply a part of the team with a different role to play in accomplishing the overall goal of the group.

This insight has helped me in my quest to be more willing to accept help. My 3 weeks of itching from poison ivy exposure were a tangible reminder of how things might be easier if I worked in tandem instead of alone. It had never occurred to me until recently how my stubborn independent streak might be LIMITING my ability to experience some incredible things. Looking at things from that perspective, asking for help is not a weakness at all. Society puts a lot of pressure on individuals to be self-sufficient, but it takes a lot of strength to put trust in another human. In fact, science has proven that social connections are as vital to our survival as food and shelter. Coming together, helping when we are able, and accepting help when we need it just might allow us to create something bigger and better than we ever could on our own.