Going overseas was something I had wanted to do since my early college days. I had always dreamed of being in the jungles of Africa or on a camel riding through a desert, but when the opportunity came to travel to Russia with Wheels for the World, I enthusiastically accepted the challenge.
Wheels for the World is a disability organization that collects and distributes wheelchairs, walkers and crutches worldwide. My role was to meet with individuals with disabilities as they came for wheelchairs and to speak about disability and other issues in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and local disability organizations. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me!
My friend Suzy offered to go as my personal assistant, and she provided wonderful help. At home, I am usually fiercely independent in dealing with the everyday challenges that come with having cerebral palsy. However, I was thankful to have a friend with me while abroad. In the months prior to leaving, we raised our own financial support, obtained necessities and practiced essential phrases in Russian.
The two most important things that we packed turned out to be patience and flexibility. I quickly realized that I needed to drop all of my preconceived notions about what an overseas trip would be like and relish the experience as it happened. It is impossible to prepare for everything. The better approach is to be flexible enough to go with the flow.
As we distributed equipment, many Russians traveled for miles to receive wheelchairs. As our team greeted them and fitted them for refurbished wheelchairs, their spirits lifted and mobility improved. For one young man who had never had a wheelchair before, there was no stopping him once he received his chair!
Watching him and others wheeling around the building made me think of my own wheelchair in a different way, seeing it not as confinement, but as a way to be active and participate in society. I was grateful for my own wheelchair that day, and every day since.
The seventeen-day trip through Russia made me realize early on that I took many things for granted as an American with a disability. Accessibility had become expected and the comforts of home had always been readily available. I quickly learned that Russian-style access meant being carried up and down steps, and holding on to my assistant for dear life!
I truly appreciated Suzy’s competent help and wonderful sense of humor. As we encountered buses that broke down and inaccessible bathrooms, we were almost always able to find something to laugh at. Most times we ended up laughing at ourselves.
During the trip it proved important to have a trusting relationship with my personal assistant. Knowing each other prior to the trip helped both of us because we were accustomed to how we each dealt with situations and what assistance was needed. Our relationship proved invaluable as we entered new territory.
I also met some unexpected challenges. We were fortunate enough to obtain the service of an accessible bus for the duration of our stay. I sat in the back with people holding onto the wheels and handlebars to keep me from rolling around the bus — our version of wheelchair lockdowns.
One day some of our team wanted to take a city bus around town. Always ready for an adventure, I went along, not knowing how I was going to get onto the bus. As it pulled up, a fellow team member swung me onto his back and we boarded as quickly as possible. I couldn’t help but laugh at the incredulous looks we received from the other passengers.
Individuals I met in the community stole glances at my wheelchair, but rarely did strangers make direct eye contact. As people became familiar with us, they soon acted like old friends.
Disability leaders offered their homes to meet in and willingly showed us around hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. It was exciting to meet Russians with disabilities and communicate with them — mostly with smiles, handshakes, hugs, gestures and nods.
Many Russians asked questions about my wheelchair, and if I lived in a home for the disabled in America. Through our interpreters, I was able to relay some of what my life was like back home. A lot of the individuals we talked to found it amazing that someone in a wheelchair could live on their own, as people with disabilities in Russia were often referred to as “invalids.” This term seemed widely accepted at the time within the Russian culture.
Upon returning from Russia, I needed time to readjust to the American way of life. My body and mind craved space to recover and process all that had happened, not to mention overcoming jet lag! I found a new appreciation for plentiful food, accessible bathrooms and the English language.
The experience in Russia continues to affect my life even now — often as a reference point in daily life. As everyday challenges pop up, related to my disability or not, I often think, “If I could go to Russia, I can make it through this!” As I look back at the experiences, I’m thankful for the hard times and the good ones. Every moment taught me something new about who I am and the kind of person I want to be.
Shanna later went on to be Director of Disability Ministry, Akron Campus at The Chapel in Ohio, USA.