My injuries will always be a part of me, but they aren’t all there is to me.

I grew up overseas, which gave me a unique perspective and made me so proud to be an American. When I was a child, I watched my dad work in refugee camps in Southeast Asia distributing aid and came to understand that America’s true strength comes from our ideals and values. I knew I wanted to serve my country in some fashion, so I decided to join the Reserve Forces. I fell in love with the military, especially the discipline it required and the fact that it was a true meritocracy. 

Then, on November 12, 2004, an attack in Iraq changed my life. Doctors amputated my left leg just below the knee, my right leg a few inches below my hip bone, and my right arm was reattached after nearly being torn off. Therapists spent months helping me learn to walk with prostheses and a cane, but I often use a wheelchair. I’m not ashamed I’m in a wheelchair. I earned this wheelchair. I’ve always insisted it’s not something that we hide. Yes, I still suffers from phantom pain. 

I credit visits from former Senate leader Bob Dole and other veterans with helping inspire me to get involved in politics. My new physical reality was never far from my mind. One of the ways in which I do stand out is that I had my disability when I started my political career, so it has always part of my political identity. 

While I quickly found my political footing, the physical realities on Capitol Hill weren’t always easy. Lots of elevators and tight official schedules took some getting used to. 

When the Speaker announced that he was going to begin strictly enforcing the 15-minute time limit for votes, most of my colleagues probably didn’t bat an eyelash, but for me, it forced a change in how I operate. I have to leave hearings and meetings earlier than other members to ensure I have extra time to make it to the House chamber. 

Educating my fellow legislators about accessibility is important to me. Even though I can walk with the aid of my prostheses and a cane, I started a policy of turning down invitations to wheelchair-inaccessible events. I want the organizers and hosts to think about what they can do to improve accessibility. Many of these fixes are so simple — we just need to get people thinking about the disability community the way they think about any other group of people. It’s not just about improving access and transportation, it’s also about changing people’s perception.  (Continued on Right)

Despite all the progress we’ve made to date, the one outstanding goal that still remains to be fully achieved is fully integrating the disability community into everyday American life. Most of America may take it for granted, but those of us with disabilities know just how critical reliable transportation is for the ability of Americans living with disabilities to maintain an independent life. What good is a job or a degree without a way to get to class or a meeting? 

My message to the disability community is to continue making your voices heard. Never take the progress we’ve made for granted. It’s so important for everyone to get involved, to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know your priorities and how laws such as the ADA have improved your lives. 

One thing I tell everyone thinking of running for office is you have to start somewhere. Whether that’s a state office or your local school board, having that experience of putting yourself out there and speaking up for what you believe in is invaluable. 

I still marvel at how far I have come and how much more I have been able to accomplish than I could have imagined those first few days lying in a hospital bed — including having a baby. Our first child, Abigail followed by our second daughter, Maile, are my proudest accomplishments yet. 

I have been so lucky to be able to spend time with them and watch them grow. When I get frustrated by the difficulties I face or tired of explaining the realities of living with a disability, I look at all the good in my life and am able to say, “you know, things are pretty good — they could be a lot worse.”

Visit with Sen. Tammy Ducksworth on her Gov. Website, or Follow her on FacebookTwitter, YouTube or Instagram.

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