How A Tragic Brain Trauma Accident In 1964 Made Me A Pioneer For Americans With Disabilities

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woman in wheelchair looking at sunset
Self

In 1964, Victoria Mavis had a tragic accident at the age of four that resulted in brain trauma and left her partially paralyzed. Facing a grim diagnosis, she fought for her life and relearned how to perform basic functions such as walking and talking.

Within a year of her accident, she would be the first physically handicapped child to enter a school system that wasn’t equipped physically or culturally for her special needs. S

he was a pioneer for equality of treatment in an era when people who were handicapped were considered social misfits that should be institutionalized, were openly ridiculed and were discriminated against for access to public systems.

Victoria paved the way for others who “didn’t fit in” long before the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was ever proposed or before “bullying” was a community epidemic to resolve.

In 1964, I suffered a tragic injury at the age of four that resulted in brain trauma which left me partially paralyzed and disabled.

Facing a grim diagnosis, I fought for my life and had to relearn basic functions such as walking and talking.

Within a year of the accident, I would be the first child with a physical handicap to enter a school system that wasn’t equipped structurally or culturally for special needs, or for that matter — for disabilities of any type.

Nevertheless, I have grown professionally and thrived in a world where my handicap (with or without the accompaniment of a wheelchair or forearm crutch) was the ‘pink elephant' in the room which no one spoke about— including myself. 

As I compiled notes to write my book, Every Scar Tells a Story, I realized there was a central theme to what I learned while overcoming struggles associated with having a lifetime walking disability.

At first, I figured these lessons were beneficial only to someone like me, with a disability; however, the more I spoke to people, the more I realized these insights can benefit all:

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1. Everyone has a disability.

It was sometime during the early part of my career when I discovered this —it's just that some disabilities are not as obvious as mine, nor are they necessarily considered a disability.

However, the shortcomings of others can be just as crippling as my nasty limp which is accompanied by forearm crutches that limit my physical activity.

Some days, I muse over the advantage given me for insight into what I need to work on versus someone who doesn’t realize they have an obstacle to overcome like extreme anger, the inability to forgive, or a reluctance to share their thoughts or feelings.

Although these imperfections may not have a disability diagnosis, they can be just as disabling in building lasting relationships with others or achieving your dreams, as mine is for completing various physical tasks.

2. We all have skills that are valuable in life and work.

Watching me walk, you quickly understand that I can’t do physical things like running, carrying boxes, or even walking to the mailbox without assistance.

Although this prevents me from easily performing many life and recreational activities, it doesn’t stop me from others.

Recently, I volunteered to work at a food bank and was put on ‘box packing detail’ along with a few others. As I looked around, the majority of people were carrying totes of food, or loading vehicles with boxes of food to be delivered to the needy.

As I prepared to leave, the director approached and thanked me for packing boxes quickly while ensuring that all contents were placed in the precise order that I was instructed; these were two essential skills he rarely observes in one person.

Then, he proceeded to invite me to apply for a job opening as he valued the skills I was able to bring to his organization.

3. Always wear clean underwear.

These were my mother’s famous words that stuck over the years. This mindset of having a routine to follow prepared me for anything life might toss my way starting with a toe surgery I had in my late teens that didn’t turn out the way the doctor had planned.

Despite being assured pre-surgery that I would wake from anesthesia with bandaged toes and would be wearing shoes within a week, consider my shock when I woke post-surgery to both feet covered in casts up to my knees!

Instantly consumed with anger and hurt, I counted the hours until I could yell at the surgeon.

In the end, he explained why he needed to take a different route; however, it was still five weeks before I could put shoes on and another three before I could walk without crutches.

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From this painful experience, I learned that wearing clean underwear meant that I had to always ask enough questions to make sure I understand the best and worst possible outcomes for decisions in my life.

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4. I learned how to be fearless in asking people for what I need.

When I grew up, the concept of advocacy either for yourself or in support of others was unheard of; rather, most were taught they needed to make it on their own.

As limped through the years surrounded by a world of strangers, I often needed help for simple things like opening a door or lifting a heavy box into my cart while shopping; but I was too proud to ask for help as I believed it to be a sign of weakness on which people would judge my abilities, especially at work.

However, the years have taught me that most people are compassionate and willing to lift a hand if you simply let them know what you need—and with or without a disability, we all need help now and again.

5. You can't control your future; you can only control the choices that make your future.

As life got more physically challenging, I had to make smart choices to ensure my future mobility, like regularly exercising and staying healthy through a good diet, or avoiding physically dangerous situations, like climbing a mountain just to prove I could.

Trust me — these decisions didn’t come without careful thought or angst for what I wanted to do versus what the result of my decisions might be.

Looking back on my gradual decline in mobility, I see where it changed my recreational pursuits from active sports like playing tennis or golf to inactive activities like painting and crafts.

For some, this life may seem a bit unfair, that is until you consider the same choices led to a prosperous career and the financial security of being employed. 

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Victoria K. Mavis is a speaker, author, and human resources (HR) professional. She develops programs for disability agencies, educational institutions, and healthcare providers to increase disability awareness in order for individuals with disabilities to gain an independent lifestyle.