“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We have all heard this old saw at some point in our lives, but for Melanie Knecht and Trevor Hahn, being told to try again must have been more annoying occasionally than it is for most. Born with spina bifida, Knecht has to use a wheel chair to travel most places. Hahn, who lost his sight five years ago, has needed guidance ever since.
But rather than allow their disabilities to dictate how they live their lives, Knecht and Hahn have teamed up to tackle their favorite pastime: hiking. Carrying Knecht on his back, Hahn follows her direction as they ascend various peaks. The two have won recognition for their unique approach both to climbing and to living with their particular handicaps.
Neither likes being called “inspirational,” and it is not too hard to guess why. Those who refer to them in this way are able-bodied people with no physical impairments, not others stripped of one faculty or another. As Hahn points out, someone who can see would never call a man with full sight “inspirational” for doing well in a particular sport. Why should he therefore call a man who is blind, like Hahn, an “inspiration”?
Perhaps this impetus is born partly not only out of a desire to be polite and encouraging, but also from a place of fear. And this may not truly be the concern of offending the disabled person so much as it is the worry that the able person could never achieve such results if they were similarly hindered.
There are ways to get along if this should happen, of course. But no hale individual enjoys contemplating the loss and subsequent struggle to live a more difficult life. It is painful, terrifying, and feels like a cheat – in no small part because it brings us face to face with our true selves. If we had to face the same challenges that Knecht and Hahn do on a daily basis, would we hold on and greet the day with a smile, or would we fall into despair and bitterness?
Most of us would like to say we would choose the former. But we all fear that we would not make the grade. And that, I think, is the reason why so many automatically refer to people like Knecht and Hahn as “inspirations.” They are reminders that we can live full lives despite dispiriting circumstances. That life does not end when bad things happen, or when we lose something we thought we would always have.
If we can read their story with that spirit in mind, I think we will be the better for it. Enjoy the article, readers. And next time you see someone with a disability making headway in spite of their physical difficulties, maybe it would be better not to say, “You’re such an inspiration!” Instead, try saying, “You are an example to us all. Thank you.” They may need to hear the latter more than the former.
She can’t walk and he can’t see, but together, they climb mountains
Melanie Knecht and Trevor Hahn are hiking buddies, both from Colorado. However, they aren’t a conventional hiking team.
Knecht is 29 years old and was born with spina bifida; Hahn is 42 years old, and five years ago he lost his sight due to glaucoma. Knecht uses a wheelchair, so in the past it was complicated for her to do anything “off-road,” although she found workarounds to make it happen. She even went to Easter Island where a friend carried her on his back using a carrier designed for parents to carry toddlers. On his part, since losing his sight, Trevor has continued to hike, but initially relied on having teammates who could guide him with spoken directions and by ringing a bell.
Knecht and Hahn met each other last year at a course for adaptive exercise, and soon became friends. Their shared passion for nature and outdoor activities inspired them to form a team and undertake the adventure of hiking in the mountains together. “To us, teaming up to do this just seemed like common sense,” Melanie told reporter Kathryn Miles in an article in Outside.