A strong and confident person is built from the many and varied experiences she has had in life. In fact, all of us are shaped and formed by those experiences. They prepare us for adversity, help us realize our preferences and options, and steer us toward the lives we choose. Many people with disability have lived such limited lives, whether because of well-intentioned overprotection, segregation and separation from everyday life, or imposed poverty.

Meet this woman (we’ll call her Suma) who up until recently lived in a facility in which her life was almost completely controlled for the convenience of others. She was told when to eat, what to eat, when to sleep, which twenty people she would share her sleeping quarters with, and what she would do all day long. Even simple things like shopping for vegetables or fabric were foreign to her. Her life was very small, very restricted. As a young woman with a disability, she had landed in the shelter home system as a child, and as a result, had little frame of reference for typical life.

When she was liberated from the shelter home, she walked through three locked gates toward freedom under the watchful eye of a security guard for the very last time.

Within the circles of people who discuss issues related to disability, there is much talk these days about choice, voice, and control. These are important and valid parts of a good life, and no doubt people with disability have so often been deprived of such. In fact, we can even say that in many situations, people with disability, especially developmental disabilities, are often heavily managed by others – perhaps by family members or by the organizations that serve them.

vinita close upOne of the first and best things we can do to open people’s possibilities is to help them try new things. Last week, Suma and a few of the women she now lives with had the chance to broaden their experience base by experiencing travel for the very first time. It was amazing to see Sumitra experience so many “firsts” – first time on an overnight train trip, first stay in a hotel, first use of a “key card,”  first trip on a metro, first decision who she would share a hotel room with, first experience on an escalator, first vacation, first time visiting a friend who lives in a flat, first time touring an historic monument, first time visiting a different place of worship. Each “first” opens up something within her, makes her bigger somehow, stronger. One can almost see the strength emanating from this woman as her experience grows and with it, her confidence.

Yes, choice and voice matters, but a pre-requisite for both is knowing what you want and having the confidence to say it out loud – that can only come from experience. Suma’s future is different now because Suma has changes – her world is bigger. SHE is bigger, somehow.