Living With Polio

Learning from Disability

Grace Young

My life changed course when I had polio at age nine, but I was too young to realize it. When a person is disabled in adulthood their whole world is turned upside down pretty quickly. At the age of nine, I only knew that I couldn’t walk, play outside with my friends, or go to school for a year.

But what really charted the course for my future was being a patient of a physical therapist, Miss Waddell, who had been trained by Sister Kenny.

Along with the dreaded hot packs five times a day, there was muscle re-education every day. This was the interesting part. Miss Waddell believed in using the correct muscle name as we did each exercise. None of “squeeze this muscle,” rather it was “the anterior tibialis starts here and ends here, now contract your anterior tibialis.” I left that hospital the best muscle-educated ten-year-old you could imagine. The therapy continued with others after I came home, but Miss Waddell definitely set me on my life course.

When it came time for college, choosing a profession was easy. Although I seriously considered both occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT), OT won out because of my love for crafts. And – of course – what specialty area would I choose besides physical disabilities? Post-polio syndrome (PPS) didn’t rear its head till many years later, so that was one disability that was not in the therapy curriculum. Polio was considered stable: no one knew that the other shoe was just waiting to drop.

Eventually I became weaker and less mobile, and started needing to use a brace and walking aids so I could keep managing my work and home life. Thirty years after graduating from college I was back in school getting a master’s in OT so I could help myself and others cope with what was happening to us. After that one thing led to another and I made PPS a sub-specialty in my work.

My daughters also learned from my disability. They learned to be resourceful, helpful, sensitive and accepting of people different from themselves. Along with the skills of problem-solving, they can determine whether an environment is truly accessible; they are the only able-bodied people whose judgment I can totally trust.

Emotionally, what have I learned? That life is unpredictable, that things happen, that we need to be ready to adapt because life doesn’t always turn out the way we expected. We have to learn to accept help from others for those things that we used to do for ourselves. That we need to be grateful for the help we get and thankful for whatever abilities we still have.

© Grace R. Young, October 2008
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark  

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Quality of Life