Editor’s note: The Aspen Times, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles about people in our community who have different abilities. As we all share a new challenge labeled COVID-19, we can learn from our friends and neighbors who have grown strong making their way through a life that has been out-of-the-norm. In this new reality of challenge, they are the leaders.
Kolakanta Darling, a longtime Roaring Fork Valley local, loves the outdoors. One of her favorite things to do is to hike to the cross on Red Mountain in Glenwood Springs. But she doesn’t hike up like most people — she gets there on an adapted Segway with a seat.
Kolakanta has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and transverse myelitis, an inflammation in the spinal cord. Diagnosed in 2002, she struggled with the limits that come with having MS. “My left leg drags. It’s like having two different legs.”
She went through a grieving stage, which she says is essential to recovery. “When there’s a significant change to the body, there’s grief with it,” says Kolakanta. But she is an optimistic woman. “I miss what I used to be able to do, so I learned to focus on what makes my heart smile. For me, it’s faith that gets me through. My daily mantra is Isaiah 40: 28-31, “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, They will soar on wings like eagles; They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
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“I’m still the same person I used to be (before the MS diagnosis), my legs just move differently.”
Besides hiking on accessible trails on her Segway, she sings in a choir, gardens and enjoys her family. When she really wants to get a kick, she uses advanced technology from Bridging Bionics. Amanda Boxtel, executive director of Bridging Bionics Foundation, says, “Kolakanta can not only walk but run in our device. It’s very liberating for her. She is absolutely exhilarated.” (This device is not yet FDA approved).
Although Kolakanta’s carpe diem philosophy takes her far, there are still obstacles to having MS. Accessibility, especially on outdoor trails, is a big issue, she says. “We’re just looking for ways to participate in this world.” She recalls what she says is a “funny story, but sad, too.” She goes on to tell about an incident when she was shopping at City Market one night. “I was getting my Segway out of the van when this guy whips into the other handicap parking spot. I say, ‘Hey, don’t you know that’s a handicap spot?’ He says, ‘Oh, that’s OK, they don’t come out after dark.’ I had to laugh at the situation. You get comments that show some people truly don’t know what it’s like to have a physical limitation.”
Kolakanta educates people when she can. “I’m willing to talk to anyone about MS. I talk to school children about overcoming adversity and how we can find our inner smile,” she says. “My Savior is with me all the time. He can carry me when my legs are misbehaving. He’s got me through before, he’ll get me through everything. There’s always joy.”
Local nonprofit Valley Life for All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at http://www.valleylifeforall.org or on Facebook.