It Took Being In A Wheelchair To Learn How To Ask For Help

Photo: Foot in Boot | Courtesy of Author, oksanashufrych, terimakasih0,  Polina Tankilevitch, USGirl | Canva
Woman studying in wheelchair, foot in boot

It is a beautiful September morning, the year is 2021. I’m crawling to the intercom in my Florentine apartment to let the paramedics in.

In my delirium, I couldn’t remember my own name or where my IDs were when they asked. I speak six languages and couldn’t find words in any of them. All I remember is that all my life force had rushed into my feet and they were so heavy I couldn’t stand. Next thing I knew I was on a stretcher, being held by a resident doctor while choking back tears at the sight of the X-ray.

“Frattura,” he awkwardly paused, pointing at the fracture.

“Ma e’ piccola, non preoccuparti.” But it’s small, don’t worry.

As I would only learn months later, I had broken my foot in three places, at varying degrees of depth, and my worst-case scenario was immediate surgery at that moment. But they told me I was fortunate enough to just get a subcutaneous injection every day for a month and a half and wear a cast, instead. We won’t get into how that injection could’ve been a pill, or that the cast should’ve been physiotherapy and a hard boot.

At this time I only speak rudimentary Italian and am completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. A stranger wheels me out of the hospital. Another hoists me into the cab and a third brings me my first ever pair of crutches.

But when I step into my home it’s just me, a pair of crutches and 30 needles in a recyclable bag.

The truth is, it wasn’t like I didn’t have friends — I had some at university, others in my shared apartment, some more that I met through apps — or family — albeit they were oceans away, they exist! — but what I had was an inability to ask for help.

I was that dyslexic child who couldn’t spell my own name so I never wrote it on the front of my book — until the teacher used it for a spelling test in Hindi. I was that little girl who didn’t ask my parents to help me study, my sister to hold me or my friends to listen when I struggled.

I was so used to being my older sister and mother’s therapist, my friends’ confidante, and my boyfriends’ and girlfriends’ most attentive listener, that by the time my needs needed meeting, I was already packing up to go.

Somewhere between predicting other’s wants and fulfilling other’s needs, I had lost the ability to actually communicate my own — and everybody else was to blame.

When I left Dubai for Florence, I didn’t tell a soul. I learned just enough Italian to get on a plane and was on my way. Every time it was my birthday, I just quietly took a week in a distant city. It never occurred to me that the reason nobody would be there for me was because I didn’t ever let them. I just thought nobody could love like I do.

Author in bootPhoto submitted by author.

After the cast came off, the only time I could bear to walk was with this girdle of a boot.

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The first time I realized I should’ve asked for help was when I blacked out from pain.

It took a day of ignoring my ever-swelling foot to ask a friend who was related to a doctor if this was usual, only to be informed I needed an ambulance, now.

The next, was when the man I was dating at the time volunteered to call me an ambulance because I informed him I might have a broken foot. After that, I realized I should’ve asked for help when I tried to bathe myself three days after the cab brought me back, and fell in my minuscule shower. It must’ve taken me an hour to get up, I was so exhausted. I was exhausted from existing, from the pain, from the injections, from the lack of food. I was just so exhausted.

The only time I asked for help was when I begged my university coordinator to give me classes from home. She was curt, telling me I was too emotional and that lots of kids come to university with a cast.

The center of Florence is a cobbled nightmare. We do not have accessible anything. I have never seen an old person actually retire here because they know a sidewalk barely has room for one, let alone one plus a pair of crutches. Wheelchair user? Get outta here!

Cobblestone street in Florence, ItalyPhoto submitted by the author.

Mind you, we were still in the middle of a pandemic and the state allowed online classes. However, I was still expected to beg all my professors individually to have online access and was marked ‘absent’ for every single class for three months. It was a one-year degree.

I stopped asking for help.

Online classPhoto submitted by the author.

After much begging, I was finally allowed to sit through my classes. 

But help came even when I didn’t ask.

It started small, my beautiful fashion school roommate brought me tea. The landlord came to the apartment to collect rent, and told me he’d have the lady who cleans our common kitchen also do my room and bathroom for a month. He wasn’t offering, he told me he would and he did.

My Italian roommates gave me the bottom shelves in the fridge and the pantry, offering to cook sometimes. One of them gave me some lasagna. A new flatmate came around and offered to stir my pot so I wouldn’t have to continue hopping one-legged around the kitchen. One of my classmates came over and cooked me dinner. I gave her low lights in my kitchen as she admitted this all didn’t look easy. Another brought me more of those darned needles.

A man saw my post about ordering a cab, under which I mentioned that I might instead order an ambulance since I am in an emergency state, and bought me a stool so I wouldn’t fall over in the shower. He also bought me a laptop stand for my bed. Then, I asked him to help me get a wheelchair, and he did.

That’s when I realized, nobody would mind helping me — only I minded being helped.

I would go into the kitchen more and basically ask the flatmates if I could sit with them because I felt lonely. I asked my classmates to take notes for me. I asked professors about extensions and about being cut some slack. I asked my classmates to just walk a little slower so I could wheel myself around. Well, my classmates did me one better, they wheeled me themselves.

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When I started trusting the people around me more, I started trusting my family with the news. Two or three weeks in, having spent all the money I was making doing tarot readings on my bed, I reached out to my family to inform them that I had broken a couple of very small, but apparently very important, bones. Of course, they were shocked.

My mother offered to come to Italy, but I told her not to. I had no space for her, I lived in a small dungeon with an attached bathroom the size of a matchbox and a walk-in with no ventilation. I didn’t want to be pitied. I just wanted to stop being in pain.

I had noticed that Florence was inaccessible before this, but it surprised me just how badly inaccessible it was considering Italy has one of the highest elderly populations in the world.

Disability of course is not just the prerogative of the old, but the fact that such a massive population didn’t call for their own accessibility measures was baffling. As I started getting a little better, I started noticing more people hobbling on crutches with the stability of stilts. One time one of them almost lost balance near me, and I dropped mine to help them. They told me never to do that again and warned me how dangerous it was to think of others before me.

I started reaching out more when I didn’t understand things. “Non capisco cosa si vuol dire, puo’ ripetere?” — I don’t understand what you’re trying to say, can you repeat that? Became a way of living for me.

I hopped to Maurizio’s on my grey stilts and learned from Maurizio how to say my vegetables in Italian. More things began happening when I started asking for help. People gave me things. Boys brought me sweets, my friends brought me food and others took me for drives so I could watch the sunset. Girls brought me postcards and McDonald's fries. The Conad lady added a kinder egg to my bag without charging it. The delivery guy climbed all the way to my apartment to drop my food because I said to be patient as I was injured. When I asked a friend in New Zealand if they would mind going through Deliveroo for me so I could order in they just ordered it, no questions asked.

People would help me if I asked. They would go above and beyond.

Except, sometimes, I hated that they would help.

I hated having people hold doors open for me because I needed them opened. I hated waiting until someone would put one of those ramps down for me because I needed one. I hated needing others to press a button for me that I couldn’t reach. I hated when others would touch my crutches. I hated when the only way people would interact with me was either out of annoyance or pity.

I was subhuman sometimes, a ‘drama queen’ other times and an ‘inspiration’ between those two times — even if it was only three months. Whatever I was, I wasn’t myself.

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Being temporarily disabled taught me who my friends are. It taught me to ascertain whether the people I was dating liked me or not. It taught me to ask for help with my whole chest  —  but steel myself for a no. It taught me to value myself, and value accessibility.

I was the bitterest, most self-destructive mental health first aid provider during my short three months of being disabled. And it was only because nothing was accessible.

Sure, lack of access made me more open-minded to asking for help, but it meant that if nobody was around to help, I was basically stranded. People would keep their suitcases on the disabled section of the train, they would take disabled seating since it has more legroom and they would treat me like an enemy of the state if I asked to use either of those things. People would wheel me as if I were a toy car, not a person. And that was when I didn’t even ask to be wheeled.

Author on trainPhoto submitted by the author.

That time in November I sat on two seats instead of one disabled seater because this one was taken by people who didn’t move. 

Flash-forward to 2023. I’ve developed a typeface for dyslexic people that isn’t Comic Sans. I designed the interface of a wonderful Italian app for deaf people to learn to sign. Since I had already chosen design before I ever got in a wheelchair, I’ve made it my goal to make my work accessible for anybody with a disability without any conditions.

I am always leading accessibility-first into my work — even if it raises costs or eyebrows.

But you shouldn’t need to be disabled to know accessibility is vital to the quality of life for a person who has a disability. It’s not fair that those who have a disability aren’t afforded autonomy. And this shouldn’t have been how I learned to ask others for help.

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Sangeeta Kalsi is a UX/UI designer with a love for writing. She has previously written for Mondanite and Vice Arabia in Dubai and currently lives and works in Italy.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.