I can't really blame people for the way they react to me sometimes. I know people are curious. I can understand how it could be a little jarring to be dancing in a club and then turn to see someone in a wheelchair. Before my accident, I can't say that I wouldn't have felt the exact same way. But I've discovered that people with disabilities have to exercise a different form of social grace, a weird sort of "accommodation" that we learn to extend. Mind if we have a few minutes of 'real talk' on behalf of my community?
The disabled community is comprised of functioning humans who are passionate about being equal members of society. And we're not shy. If you're seeing us out in public, you can pretty much bet we're secure with who we are and our disabilities. I like to think, ya know, the worst has already happened, so what else do I have to worry about? You don't have to be afraid to touch us, tease us or drum up a conversation with us. Many of us experience few things as hurtful and annoying as not being spoken directly to. Sure my friend is holding my drink to my mouth, but that doesn't mean he has to speak for me. I know that you feel awkward -- so let's just admit it and have a chat. Oftentimes people with physical handicaps make the best conversationalists. We have a story to tell, and we can almost always find a way to relate.
Several times throughout the year I have the opportunity to attend a peer support group for individuals who have recently suffered spinal cord injuries. It's one of the ways that I can give back to the amazing community that has rallied around me the past four years. And what I tell them is not too different than what I would say to you: You're going to have good days and bad days. But the worst thing you can do is bottle up your emotions. If you're having a terrible day, have your pity party, cry, talk to someone -- you'll feel so much better. And then when you're done, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Remember, you're going to have great days too. Focus on those and don't dwell on the bad. Find something you're passionate about and go for it.
I discovered my passion before my accident: photography. But since becoming paralyzed, I have realized that I don't want to just make pretty pictures. I want my lens to be a voice. While there are countless individuals who advocate on our behalf and do a wonderful job, it's become very clear to me that there are still certain conversations that aren't happening. And maybe that's because of the whole wheelchair-in-the-bar feeling, but the topic of disabilities and sexuality can't be ignored. Medical touching isn't enough for anyone -- not you and not me. Sure we understand that our bodies don't look the way they used to, but that doesn't mean they don't feel. And at the heart of it, we're all looking to be loved and wanted.
Robert Andy Coombs is a burgeoning photographer slated to graduate from Kendall College of Art and Design in May. Last fall, his piece "Disabilities and Sexuality" placed in the top 25 of the world's largest art competition, ArtPrize, held annually in Grand Rapids, MI. This has garnered him much attention, including invitations to speak regionally and showcase his work.