Tag Archives: physical disability

When psychiatric services suck donkey balls (compared to other disability services).

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This is my first post for BADD this year — Blogging Against Disablism Day.  Hopefully there will be others to follow.

So these days, in the USA and many other countries, different categories of disabled adults get different services that are supposed to help us live outside of institutions.  One kind of services is developmental disability services.   Another is physical disability services.  Another is psychiatric disability services.  Since the differences often have more to do with accidents of history, who gets to classify what groups of people, and so on, I’m not going to try to explain the differences here.  I’m also going to use a lot of medical language, because if I try to describe things as they are, I’ll get bogged down in language and never finish the post.  So please don’t take this post as agreement with the conceptions of disability laid down by service systems and professionals.  I’m just using their ideas for convenience.  As well, I’m speaking in generalizations.  Of course there are exceptions on all sides of this.  It’s just striking how consistently psychiatric services work a certain way, when other services either don’t work that way at all, or vary in how they work.  Psychiatric services stand out as particularly bad in this regard.

If you get DD or physical disability services, there’s a pretty good chance that a large part of your services will involve either helping you do things you can’t do (or can’t do without creating serious problems for yourself), helping you learn how to do things you can’t yet do but are within your grasp for learning, or some combination of the two.

A lot of times these tasks are broken down into ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) and IADLs (Instrumental Activities of Daily Living).  Here’s an example of how such things are often broken down:

ADLs:  Bathing, Dressing, Grooming, Mouth care, Toileting, Transferring Bed/Chair, Walking, Climbing stairs, Eating.

IADLs:  Shopping, Cooking, Managing medications, Using the phone and looking up numbers, Doing housework, Doing housework, Doing laundry, Driving or using public transportation, Using finances.

These definitions were taken from the Senior Planning Services website, in a PDF file titled ADL / IADL Checklist.  That’s just one definition.  Other lists might be longer, or shorter, or more descriptive than this one.  But it gets the idea across.

The Oregon Department of Human Services published a document that describes common ways how a person with a developmental disability might be supported in accomplishing ADLs and IADLs:

Assistance with ADLs, IADLs, and health-related tasks may include cueing, monitoring, reassurance, redirection, set-up, hands- on, or standby assistance. Assistance may be provided through human assistance or the use of electronic devices or other assistive devices. Assistance may also require verbal reminding to complete IADL tasks.

(A) “Cueing” means giving verbal, audio, or visual clues during an activity to help an individual complete the activity without hands-on assistance.

(B) “Hands-on” means a provider physically performs all or parts of an activity because an individual is unable to do so.

(C) “Monitoring” means a provider observes an individual to determine if assistance is needed.

(D) “Reassurance” means to offer an individual encouragement and support.

(E) “Redirection” means to divert an individual to another more appropriate activity.

(F) “Set-up” means the preparation, cleaning, and maintenance of personal effects, supplies, assistive devices, or equipment so that an individual may perform an activity.

(G) “Stand-by” means a provider is at the side of an individual ready to step in and take over the task if the individual is unable to complete the task independently.

That gives a pretty good overview of how disability services are supposed to work:  There are things we can’t do, or can’t do without assistance, or can’t do without being so drained afterwards that more important activities fall by the wayside.  Again, there are many other ways that we can be helped, but this gives you a good overview.

Generally, the above is what you’ll see when you’re getting services based in the DD (developmental disability) system, or the physical disability (sometimes just “general disability”, since physical is assumed the default by a lot of people) system:  You have trouble doing ADLs, IADLs, or other activities that you need or want to do.  So someone either helps you learn to do them, or helps you do them.  The kind and amount of assistance may be the same every day, or may vary day to day.  But the fact that you’re getting this assistance, does not usually change once you’ve been deemed to need it on a long-term basis.

Not so with psychiatric disability.  And here we come to the main point of my post.

Like developmental and physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities can come with problems that make it difficult to do ordinary daily living activities.

The one that’s most obvious to me, especially through knowing people with serious problems in this area, is something referred to as avolition.  Even if you’ve never heard the technical term avolition before, you’re likely to find this description familiar from other areas of life.  Here is part of Wikipedia’s description of avolition (bolding mine, for emphasis):

Avolition, as a symptom of various forms of psychopathology, is the decrease in the motivation to initiate and perform self-directed purposeful activities. Such activities that appear to be neglected usually include routine activities, including hobbies, going to work and/or school, andmost notably, engaging in social activities. A person experiencing avolition may stay at home for long periods of time, rather than seeking out work or peer relations.

People with avolition often want to complete certain tasks but lack the ability to initiate behaviours necessary to complete them. Avolition is most commonly seen as a symptom of some other disorder, but might be considered a primary clinical disturbance of itself (or as a coexisting second disorder) related to disorders of diminished motivation. In 2006, avolition was identified as a negative symptom of schizophrenia by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have been observed in patients with bipolar disorder as well as resulting from trauma.

[…]

Regarding schizophrenia, the American Psychiatric Association reported in 2013 that there currently are “no treatments with proven efficacy forprimary negative symptoms” (such as avolition).

When autistic people experience something that looks nearly identical to avolition, it’s likely that it will be referred to as executive dysfunction, inertia, or catatonia.  While people often mistake catatonia for a psychiatric term, it was originally a neurological term.  This is reflected in the fact that some forms of movement disorder are described as involving catatonia, where other similar movement disorders are referred to as parkinson-like in nature.  In other words, you can have the exact same traits for the exact same reasons, and what medical label gets used will depend entirely on whose territory you’re under: neurology, psychiatry, or developmental disability.  The problems may be more identical than you’d imagine.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is what happens when you have problems initiating and completing tasks as a part of the DD or physical disability systems, versus when you have the same or similar problems initiating or completing tasks as a part of the psychiatric system.  Because if you’re getting psychiatric services in your own house, I can tell you they’re highly unlikely to look anything near the above quote from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

People getting psych services in their own home don’t tend to have anywhere near as much support as other disabled people do, in getting things done that you can’t do for yourself. You’ll likely be referred for therapy and medications, even though there is no therapy or medication that gets rid of avolition very often at all.

Doing that?  Is the equivalent of, if I applied for a Hoyer lift for my myasthenic syndrome, and then instead got a referral to a neurologist and a prescription for some pyridostigmine.  Mind you, this is even assuming that therapy and meds are going to work for avolition anywhere near the level that a neurologist’s referral and a pyridostigmine prescription will help someone with myasthenia.  But even presuming they are, they’re simply not going to be sufficient to solve all the problems of avolition.

And even if therapy and meds somehow worked in the long term?  While the person was waiting to see if the worked, they’d still need services to help them get through the day in the meantime.  Avolition can result in a total standstill of daily living skills — not just a failure to socialize, but a failure to eat enough, drink enough, keep a job, any number of things.

And avolition is not the only thing that can affect people in the psychiatric system and their ability to take care of themselves.  There’s a kind of inertia that goes with depression — its different from, say, autistic inertia, but has some of the same effects in terms of rendering it difficult to move and do things.  (One of the big differences is that the depressive kind of inertia often goes along with feelings like “I’m not worth getting out of bed for” that autistic inertia generally doesn’t have.)

Worse than just leaving its clients in a state of constant neglect, the psychiatric service system often uses the excuse that doing this is for people’s own good.  After all, the saying goes, if you just let a crazy person get away with being crazy, they’ll never learn to be responsible adult citizens.  Even if over and over there’s proof that leaving people to their own devices only leads to neglect and resulting suffering.  But there’s a longstanding belief that psychiatric patients are basically like children who need the firm guiding hand and tough love that only a parent can provide.  Yes, this belief is wrong.  Yes, it’s disgusting.  Yes, it’s responsible for suffering, poverty, homelessness, and death when taken to an extreme.  And it often is.  Taken to an extreme, that is.

The way I see it, it shouldn’t matter whether your inability to get the housework done is because you’re paralyzed, because you’ve got a chronic illness, because of a cognitive disability, because of terrifying hallucinations, because you’re depressed and feel worthless and drained of all energy, because you’ve got a movement disorder, or any combination of these and other things.  If you need the help, you need the help.  People shouldn’t be cut off from such help just because, through accidents of both personal and societal history, they happen to get psychiatric services rather than some other kind of disability services.  Human beings are interdependent.  That’s how every human culture has always worked.  It’s time we started acting like it.

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Almost Alike: A Medical Cautionary Tale

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Blue medical bracelet with a medical symbol in white and the words "Adrenal Insufficency" on a metal plate.

Medical bracelet that says “Adrenal Insufficiency”.

I’ve been thinking about medical stuff a lot lately, so apologies if my posts tend towards the medical for a little while.  It’s what happens when you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be alive, and how close you came to death.  My father’s cancer has me thinking about life and death and medical care a lot, too.

In my dealings with doctors, I have found that they like the solutions to their problems to be neat and tidy.  In particular, they want there to be one diagnosis that explains all the symptoms they’re observing.  They want their patient to have that one diagnosis, and if their patient shows signs of more than one thing, it fouls up everything the doctor wants.

Case in point:  I had this neurologist at the headache clinic.  I told him that they strongly suspected my mother of having myasthenia gravis, or hereditary myasthenia.  Both are neuromuscular junction diseases that cause specific muscles to wear out quickly as you use them.  So for instance my eyes start out tracking the same object fairly well, but as time goes on, they drift outwards leaving me seeing double.  I had told my neurologist all about this, and about other muscular problems I’d been having.

I don’t remember why myasthenia came up, but I told him I was going to start on Mestinon, a medication that treats myasthenia.  His response was swift and a little annoyed:  “It’s not going to do anything.  I don’t think you have myasthenia.” 

“Why not?”

“Because people with myasthenia have trouble with specific muscle weakness. You have generalized weakness.  It’s not the same thing.”

He explained it as if I didn’t know this.  But he also explained it as if I hadn’t told him time and time again about the specific weakness, that was separate from the generalized weakness.  As if I hadn’t told him things were more complicated than he was expecting.

He offered to run an EMG but told me the results would be negative because “You just don’t have myasthenia gravis.”  I declined the testing.  I don’t like to be tested under circumstances where the doctor has already determined what the results are going to be.  Plus, I’d just been through an invasive procedure that left me in horrible pain for weeks, and I didn’t feel like being poked and prodded again.

But I did try the Mestinon, and it did make a difference.  It was subtle at first.  I could walk around my apartment without falling.  My eyes tracked things better, and for longer, before the double vision kicked in.  It was things like that.  The more Mestinon we added, the better those things got.  So it seemed my headache doctor was wrong, and there was something real about the effects of the Mestinon.

But in other areas, I was getting weaker.  In fact, as far as I could tell, I was dying.  I was hesitant to tell anyone this fact, because it felt like a fairly dramatic thing to announce.  But I’d known terminally ill people who had more energy than I had at times.  And I have instincts that tell me when something is going badly wrong.  Something was going badly wrong, and it went along with that more generalized muscle weakness.

I’ve already told the story of how I got diagnosed with severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And that’s what happened.  They found no measurable evidence of cortisol or ACTH in my blood.  When they flooded me with ACTH, I made cortisol, but not as much as expected.  Meaning my pituitary gland is not making enough ACTH to tell my adrenal glands to make cortisol.  And this was the reason for, among many, many other symptoms, my severe muscle weakness that affected my entire body.

I went into treatment for adrenal insufficiency and everything seemed to be looking up.  No longer bedridden.  No longer required to use a wheelchair for anything.  Not that I minded these things so much when they were happening, but it’s nice to be able to get up and walk up and down a flight of stairs when you want to.  It feels good to be able to exercise, after six years of bedrest.  Dexamethasone makes me feel alive again, instead of waiting for the next infection to kill me.   I feel strong, and sturdy, and robust, in a way I haven’t in years, and my friends sense the same thing about me.

The only problem?  Not everything went away.  I still had weakness in specific muscles.  I’d been referred to a new neurologist at the same time they were testing my cortisol.  This neurologist never pretended he had any answers.  He was simple and methodical in the way he worked.  He would come up with a list of every possibility, no matter how remote, and then he would run tests for every possibility.  This made me trust him in a way that I didn’t trust my migraine neurologist.  So I let him do any test he wanted to do.

Many of the tests, he came in and did them himself, which is unusual for a doctor.  Usually they delegate that stuff.  He did a regular EMG that turned up nothing, and I thought “See, my mother didn’t have an abnormal EMG either, so whatever we have isn’t going to show up on tests.”  Neither of us showed up as having the antibodies, either.  I began to think this was going to be one of those things that we never solved.

Then he called me in for something he called a single fiber EMG.  He was going to stick a wire into my forehead and measure something about the muscles.  I remember that on that day I had a lot of trouble even holding my head up on one side, and that I was seeing double.  He stuck the wires in, made me raise my eyebrows and move my eyes around.  There were a lot of electrical noises.

At the end of the test, he told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible because the result was abnormal.  The muscles were firing asynchronously. 

I didn’t know what that meant, but a week later I was in his office being told that I probably did have a neuromuscular junction disease after all.  Probably myasthenia gravis, possibly a much rarer hereditary form of myasthenia.

And to think that literally a couple weeks before I got the single-fiber EMG, my regular doctor and I had been discussing whether I really needed to be on Mestinon anymore.  We thought maybe my only real problem had been the adrenal insufficiency all along, and that my response to Mestinon might have been some kind of placebo effect (even though I don’t seem very prone to that effect even when I want to be).  Even I was starting to fall prey to that idea that a diagnosis is just one thing.

Right now, we don’t really know what exactly my diagnosis is.  We know for certain that I have secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And we are pretty certain that I have a neuromuscular junction disorder, and the most common one of those is myasthenia gravis.  (I’m just going to refer to it as myasthenia gravis for the rest of this.  Because it’s shorter than saying “the thing we think is myasthenia gravis maybe”.)

But the important thing — the thing a lot of doctors miss — is that there is not one diagnosis here.  There are at least two diagnoses, possibly more.  This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, that I’ve had doctors miss something fairly obvious because they thought that the simplest explanation is always a single diagnosis. 

I still remember back when I was dealing with three different diagnoses that affected movement in different ways:  Adrenal insufficiency, myasthenia gravis, and autistic catatonia.  And any time we’d try to bring up a symptom of one of them with a doctor, they’d bring up a “contradictory” symptom from a different one of them, and that would mean that… it couldn’t be myasthenia gravis, because sometimes I froze stiff instead of limp, because I also had autistic catatonia.   And it went on like that for years, where every condition I had was ‘contradicted’ by some other condition, so many of the doctors refused to see the complexity of the situation.

Sometimes that resulted in situations that were almost funny, but other times it could turn deadly.  There was a time I was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia connected to gastroparesis, and my doctor refused to treat me for anything other than the pneumonia.  So I had collapsed in my bed after vomiting so much that all the muscles involved had gone limp and I was starting to have trouble breathing.  In retrospect we think it was the start of an adrenal or myasthenia crisis, and that I belonged in the ICU.  But at the time, the hospitalist simply refused to treat anything that wasn’t pneumonia.  So I had to lie there totally immobilized, delirious, and hallucinating, wondering whether I was going to survive, for days on end.  All because a doctor was only willing to think about one condition at a time.

Over the years, I’ve picked up an impressive collection of diagnoses.  Many of them are based on symptoms and my response to treatments.  But some of them are based on hard-core medical tests like high-resolution CT scans — things you can’t confuse for anything other than what they are.  I’m going to list the ones that  were diagnosed by those hard-core medical tests, and understand I’m listing them here for a reason:

  • Bronchiectasis (high-resolution CT scan)
  • Frequent bowel obstructions (x-ray)
  • Central sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Early-onset gallbladder disease (ultrasound)
  • Exotropia (eye exam)
  • Gastroparesis (gastric emptying scan)
  • GERD – reflux (barium swallow)
  • Esophageal motility problems (barium swallow)
  • Dysphagia (barium swallow)
  • High cholesterol (blood test)
  • Hypermobility syndrome (Brighton criteria)
  • Myasthenia gravis or related condition (single fiber EMG)
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency (cortisol test, ACTH test, ACTH stimulation test)
  • Urinary retention with spastic urethra (urodynamic testing)

So this is fifteen different conditions right here, that there is no possible way that I don’t have them.  They’ve been tested for, the tests are valid, there’s nothing unusual about the tests I was given, they exist.  I’m diagnosed with a lot of other conditions, but even if we pretended that those conditions turned out to be misdiagnosed because some of the diagnosis was subjective… I’m still left with fifteen conditions here that are very much real.  Some of them are more serious than others.  But many of them are difficult and complex both on their own and in combination with each other.  (Also, many of them went years misdiagnosed because doctors refused to even test me for them, believing that a person with a developmental disability or a psych history couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about their own symptoms.)

Now imagine you’re a doctor, and I’ve walked in your door, off the street, with no medical history.  And I’ve got the symptoms of all of these fifteen conditions.  Some of the symptoms are severe enough to be life-threatening.  And your very first instinct is to try to find one condition that accounts for all of these symptoms.  You’re going to be looking for a very long time, and you’re going to be lucky if I don’t die before you figure it out.

Of course, it’s still possible that there really is one condition that explains all this.  Or at least, a small handful of conditions.  There are many genetic conditions that can cause problems all over your body, and they can be notoriously difficult to pin down.  But for the moment, we’ve had to diagnose all of these things separately in order to get a handle on how to treat them. 

It may be there’s some genetic condition that causes neuropathy (my mother and I both have symptoms of autonomic and sensory neuropathy), which could in turn cause the gastroparesis and esophageal motility problems (and dysphagia, and other things that aren’t listed above), just as one example.  But right now we don’t have that information.  Right now we just know I have gastroparesis, and that it doesn’t play well with reflux and bronchiectasis, and that if I hadn’t gotten a feeding tube in time it probably would’ve killed me.  There could also be something behind the adrenal insufficiency, but that damn near did kill me a number of times before we even knew enough about it to put me on dexamethasone. 

And that’s why it’s important that medical professionals not restrict themselves to a single diagnosis when they’re looking at what’s going wrong with someone.  If you see symptoms that look contradictory, then you ought to be wondering if you’re looking at more than one condition at once.

If there’s one thing I have noticed, having been in and out of hospitals for a long, long time… it’s that my roommates are usually people like me.  They’re people with multiple medical conditions all at once.  They’re not textbook illustrations of a single condition in all its pristine glory.  They’re a mess, just like me.  Like my roommate who had both Lesch-Nyhan and myasthenia gravis (and was a woman, which is rare for someone with Lesch-Nyhan in the first place).  They really treated her like crap, too — they wouldn’t believe a word she said about herself, unless they could verify it from some outside source, which they always did, but still never trusted her.  Sometimes I heard her crying after they left.  At any rate, I can’t remember a single hospital roommate who had only one condition, unless they were in there for a routine surgery.

Which tells me that those of us who end up in hospitals on a regular basis, at least, are people with complicated medical histories.  Not people who just have one simple thing that can be figured out.  Which means that no hospitalist should ever do what one of mine did and say “I’m only treating the pneumonia, nothing else matters, no matter how bad things get.”  I’m really passionate about this issue because I’ve seen how close to death I’ve come, how many times, just because everyone wanted my body to be simpler than it was.

Maybe the problem is that we train doctors too much on textbooks, and on the people who most resemble textbooks.  We don’t want to confuse them with too much, all at once.  So they grow to look for the one explanation that will explain it all, instead of the fifteen or more explanations that will explain it all.  And in the meantime, their patient could die while they’re waiting to get properly diagnosed.

And that’s the part that worries me.  I’m very lucky to be alive.  My doctors know I’m very lucky to be alive.  And I have a pretty amazing team of doctors.  I have a great GP, a great pulmonologist, a great neurologist, and a great endocrinologist.  These are doctors who are willing to listen to me when I know more than they do, but also willing to argue with me when they know more than I do, it’s the perfect combination. 

My GP has been here since I moved to Vermont, and he is known in the area as one of the best doctors around.  We have our disagreements, but he always explains his decisions to me, and I always explain my decisions to him.  We respect each other and that makes everything work.  He has done his best to stand up for me in situations where my social skills have caused problems with other doctors.

My pulmonologist is amazing.  She always anticipates situations where I’m going to face discrimination, and she’s always ready.  When she knew I was heading for a really bad pneumonia, she had my lungs CAT scanned to prove the pneumonia was there, because she knew nothing less than that would get me admitted to the hospital.  And even then it took all she and my GP could do to get me into the hospital and keep me there long enough to get me a feeding tube.

I’m new to my endocrinologist, but he’s clearly really good too.  He’s been helping me through the first stages of being diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, including things as difficult as when to stress-dose and how much.  He’s given me the confidence to figure out on my own the amount of steroids I need to give myself in physically or emotionally stressful situations.  That’s a key skill you have to have to avoid adrenal crisis, and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.

My neurologist is also new, but he’s clearly highly competent.  There’s nothing flashy about him or anything.  It’s not like he has some kind of flashy swagger like you see on TV shows.  He’s very quiet.  What he has is the ability to be mind-bogglingly thorough.  He listens to everything you have to say, he asks very careful questions, and he takes very careful notes.  Then he thinks up every possible condition that could result in the symptoms you have, no matter how rare or improbable it seems.  Then he figures out which ones are the most important to test for first.  And then he pretty much tests you for everything.  If there were two words for him, it would be methodical and thorough.  And it’s paid off — we now know I have something similar to myasthenia gravis, even though all the signs were pointing away from it for awhile.  Like my GP, he’s one of those doctors that other doctors hold in very high regard.  I can tell by the way they talk about him.

I wanted to make a point of talking about these doctors, because the point of this post is not to bash the medical profession.  These are people who have saved my life.  These are people I have built a relationship with over the years, or am in the course of building a relationship with now.  I’ve had plenty of truly awful doctors, but I’ve had a surprising number of truly great ones as well.  Most are somewhere in the middle.  But the great ones are the ones I owe my life to, many times over.  They have done things for me that, I am sure, they have never even told me about, and probably never will.

But all doctors, no matter how great, need a reminder that medical conditions don’t come in neat, orderly packages the way the textbooks make them sound.  Most disabled people and people with chronic illnesses have multiple conditions, not just one.  Often, these conditions have symptoms that can seem to contradict each other.  And even when there’s one overarching condition that causes all of them, there’s a good chance you’re going to need to find all the smaller conditions before you can put the puzzle together.  Many times, finding all the smaller conditions is a matter of life and death.  People simply can’t wait around to find the perfect most elegant answer when we’re going into adrenal crisis or myasthenia crisis on a regular basis.  Maybe there’s a reason I have adrenal insufficiency, and maybe one day they’ll find it, but for now I need to be on dexamethasone so I don’t die in the meantime.

It’s strange to walk places.

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I walk to most places now.

It’s strange to not have to think about curb cuts, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, and making sure that the nurse at my doctor’s office moves everything out of the way so I can back my powerchair into the room without bashing into things.

It’s strange to have to hunt around for chairs to sit down in.  Because just because I can walk, doesn’t mean I can stand indefinitely.  In fact, standing has always been harder than walking.  My cane helps signal to people that if I need to sit down, I need to sit down fast.

I am sure that the way I look to people has changed, but I have not yet been able to work out how.  In the past, I remember how people’s estimation of my cognitive abilities went up once I was in a powerchair full-time.  Because apparently I have some quality of my appearance that usually makes people underestimate me cognitively, but if I’m in a wheelchair, they can blame that quality on a physical impairment.  Now that I’m out of the chair, I wonder if I’ll be getting treated like a two-year-old more often again.  Or if enough has changed, that that won’t happen either.

I may be walking places, but my identity has not caught up with the idea of being a walking person.  I still imagine that I’m in a wheelchair.  Of course, I’m not fully out of the wheelchair, either.  I still use wheelchairs for distances I can’t manage yet.  But when I do walk, I still somehow imagine that I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m always surprised to find that I’m not.  Everything looks different when I walk, it’s all viewed from a different angle in more ways than one.  I’m still not used to it.

It’s not just a matter of identity, it’s a matter of perspective.  Literally the angles are different.  The places I can go are different.  The expectations I get from others are different, and not always what you’d expect.

And I feel like I haven’t quite caught up yet.

I also feel like very little about me has actually changed, and yet other people see a huge change because the categories of full time power chair user and person who walks with a cane and may sometimes use a manual wheelchair are so different in their minds. The equipment you use becomes how they see you, even other disabled people do this.