I was born with a progressive neuromuscular disease. When I was diagnosed at age three, doctors could not predict how long I would walk, when I would need to use a wheelchair, or even how long I would live.
My parents chose to raise me as a person with capabilities, rather than limitations. Sure, there were activities I could not do. This did not excuse me from chores I could perform, such as washing and drying dishes, or setting and clearing the table.
I was raised to be an optimist – to look for possibilities when others might see challenges, solutions when faced with barriers.
They were shaping what would become my manifesto.
I left my small upstate New York hometown on August 16, 1990, to live for a year as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student in Tasmania, Australia. Thousands of students participate in this international exchange program each year. However, I was one of the first disabled students to successfully complete an exchange year through Rotary International, and the first wheelchair-using student in the program.
Living on the other side of the world for ten months as a teenager taught me important lessons about tolerance, culture and advocacy. But the most important lesson came from advice I received the night before I left home when our neighbor, Doctor Kenneth “Doc” Benson, DVM, came over.
Denise, you are going to be invited to many events this year. You will have lots of opportunities to see new things and meet new people. Whatever happens, say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.
Say yes. Do it all.
During my exchange year, I said “YES!” to every invitation. I went to dinners, barbecues, parties, sailing trips, basketball games, museum tours and concerts. I traveled from the island state of Tasmania to mainland Australia three times. I toured Tasmania with fifteen other exchange students and then toured mainland Australia with eighty-four exchange students. It was one of the best years of my life.
By the time I returned to the United States, saying yes had become a way of life. I have a wealth of stories to tell because I chose to say yes when others may have said no.
Want to go for a spur of the moment ride to New York City on Saturday rather than sit in the dorms? Sure!
Travel to Rhode Island to watch the local hockey team win a play-off game on the weekend of college graduation? I’m in!
Enter a national competition for women who use wheelchairs? Why not – sounds fun!
Sing at an event in Washington, DC on the eve of a predicted snow storm even though you might get snowed in? It would be an honor!
As my physical capabilities have declined, it has become more challenging to say yes. I still say yes as often as possible, but doing so now requires more effort and planning. In 2014 when I was asked to return to Australia to speak at a 2015 conference, I said yes on instinct without thinking. Thankfully, I had a year to prepare. It took months of research, planning and the assistance of many to make the trip a reality.
Living with disability makes saying yes an exercise in problem solving and strategic thinking. Yet, it is not impossible to say yes even when one relies on others for personal care assistance.
I have required more assistance for over a year due to a sharp decline in my abilities following last year’s femur fracture. I have not been able to drive independently for months, and may not be getting a new van until the end of this year. I have been constantly recruiting and training new Personal Assistants to meet my basic needs. It has been one of the most challenging periods in my life.
It is tempting to just withdraw while I wait for more independence. I have not always wanted to say yes because sometimes it is just easier to say no. It takes less effort to say no. It costs less time and money. It is less stressful.
Whenever I feel like saying no, I am transported back to the summer of 1990. I am sixteen years old again, about to leave for what will end up being the most influential year of my life. I hear Doc’s voice once more in my head and I am reminded that I have no regrets about missed opportunities.
Whatever happens, say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.
The next time you find yourself faced with opportunity, give yourself permission to say yes. It may not be your first instinct. It may not be easy. It might take planning and preparation, and even then it may not be worth it.
But you won’t know until you try.