Playing under laundry baskets with a little girl in Central America. 2001.
When I was 19, I wanted nothing more than to go on a mission trip. I was really into church, and mine was into serving in other countries, but I remember feeling hesitant. At a previous church outing (a camping trip with my confirmation class at a previous church) I got to go, but there was a woman I didn't know who had to go as well. Just for me. To be sure I was okay or something. It was strange and I felt relieved when a longtime friend helped when I needed it, naturally, and without complaint. (Impressive for a 14 or 15 year old, which we were at the time.)
Needless to say, I didn't want a repeat of having some random person along just to watch me. It felt weird.
The mission trips were announced. One was going to Ukraine, another to Central America, and even more places that I can't recall now. Long story short? I made my decision based on the fact that the Central American children's home was run by my friend's uncle, who also used a wheelchair.
I did the work. Got accepted for the trip. Raised the money. And off we went. There was no awkward third wheel this time. When I got off the bus at the children's home, all the kids were excited to see that I was "like Mike" who they saw every day. The kids (thanks, in part, I'm sure, to Mike) accepted my chair as quickly as they did me. They played peek-a-boo behind it. They pushed me and each other in it. They took rides on my lap, and even on my foot pedals. One little girl did ask what was wrong with my legs, and though I was familiar with Spanish, I didn't quite have a strong enough grasp to have such a conversation. So my team leader (and Mike's niece) said: "I don't know how to explain it, but it's not a problem for her."
The thing is, it wasn't. It was as normal for me as it was for Mike. And I got to spend nine tumultuous, interesting, enlightening days on a trip that affects me to this day, in positive ways. I didn't need a third person hovering, like I had to have years earlier.
In fact, the difference was never made more clear to me than when I was cruising down the steep, unfinished sidewalk to one of the children's homes, near Mike, when my chair tipped over the edge into the grass. Nobody freaked out. Nobody came running. Mike just asked over his shoulder, "You okay?" I assured him I was, got up and kept going.
Though not always common, or possible, if you want to do something, and you're disabled, try finding someone else who is, too, who is already doing it. That level of understanding can't be taught, or bought. And it made my whole experience that much better.