Living With Polio

Building Bridges

Nancy Baldwin Carter, BA, M Ed Psych, Omaha, Nebraska is a polio survivor, a writer, and is founder and former director of Nebraska Polio Survivors Association.

At first she irritated me. A relative newcomer to a literature study group I attend was heading my way, and I didn’t want to deal with her. The previous week she had given me a condescending pat on the head as she threw a bit of baby-talk at me, a common reaction of some folks when they first encounter a person with a disability, and I didn’t want any more of that.

But she was rushing toward me full-tilt, and I couldn’t see a way to escape her this time, either, so I gritted my teeth and smiled.

“Oh, it’s like a miracle!” she gushed. “I can’t believe it! I didn’t know you can walk.”

Of course she didn’t know I can walk; she didn’t know me at all. Clearly she knew nothing about polio, either. From the very beginning, she had been making a lot of unwarranted assumptions about my capabilities.

That day she had seen me rise from my power chair during the meeting to hand out some pamphlets, not realizing I use the chair mainly for going distances and, since I cannot sit in regular chairs, for sitting. The last thing I need, I thought, is some irritating ratchet-mouth trying to engage me in a conversation about faith healers or wheelchairs.

I was building quite a case for being unpleasant to the woman when it struck me: Wait a minute! I didn’t know her, either. I had no idea who she is, and already I’d decided she’s some addlepated airhead without a clue. To be honest, I had no hint what she wanted—or even if she wanted anything at all.

Immediately I thought of a little plaque my grandmother used to have hanging in her kitchen: Presume Goodwill.  A fine place to start.

Quickly it became essential for me to see how the woman and I are alike. My philosopher husband calls this “Immersing yourself in the ‘what is’—joining the cosmos.”

And so we chatted. She was a kind woman with lovely eyes. Her family came from Italy, and she had learned their secret to making the best biscotti in the world, she said—and offered to bring me some. The recent death of a loved one weighed heavily on her. She was reaching out the only way she knew how.

Over time, searching for the inner value of the woman led me to realize something else: When my focus was on finding her, I was no longer touchy about me or how she viewed my disability. I made an effort to see her positively and to see things from her vantage point. This was not simply a lesson on tolerance; we were becoming friends.

Amazingly, the more I found to appreciate in her, the more I saw to appreciate in me, too. In spite of my initial opposition, the more I knew of her, the more alike we seemed—and that’s what I was looking for. My willingness to view her in a new light changed me for the better.

The experience made me realize, once again, how easy it is to be wrong about people. And how ill-served I am by not being open-minded enough to give the other guy a chance, not taking the time to build relationships. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a stranger on a park bench or Aunt Suzie. The smallest effort can make a huge difference.

It’s a clear path to serenity and happiness. Puts a smile on my face, just remembering.

All columns originally published by Post-Polio Health International (

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Mental Health