When I was in my twenties, I learned that I had a degenerative muscular disease. Over two decades, as I’ve lost the ability to run, then used a cane, then crutches, and most recently a wheelchair, I started hearing the same jokes over and over: “Don’t get a speeding ticket!” “Ya got snow tires for that thing?” If you happen to use your legs to walk, can you imagine a stranger coming up to you and saying, “Ya got knee pads for those things?” The other day, I encountered a woman entering my apartment building. When my wife and daughter happened to come upon us, she was flustered and seemed to have difficulty rearranging her initial perception of me, saying “This is your baby? So you’re OK, Can you walk?” It was as if my parenting abilities or even my reproductive organs are somehow connected with my ability to walk—as if sitting keeps me from feeling and acting on my own emotions—as if I’ve lost too much to go on.
Of course, I have lost things because of my disease. I used to play guitar and lost that; I liked to dance and I lost that; I loved to play baseball and lost that. But don’t we all experience loss? Each one of us deals with illness, or there’s a death in the family, or we lose a job, a career, we lose the house, the crops fail, or we don’t have enough to eat. I don’t experience more loss, simply because I use a wheelchair. How do I cope? How do we all cope? We cry, we laugh, we love, we feel.
People seem to make assumptions about disabilities that they may not elsewhere. We’re more familiar with the mistake of judging someone’s self-worth by the color or the amount of curl or kink in their hair–or the fallacy of thinking that the choice to wear pants or a skirt, or a kilt, or a sarong or sari has anything to do with the value of the person within. It’s the same whether one uses a cane, crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair. One’s equipment does not reflect one’s inner soul.
So this I believe: All people are valuable and whole. Being aware that there is a full person behind perceived differences can teach us about our own value as humans and open our hearts and minds (yours and mine). It’s true in my relationship with my wife, I feel it in my spiritual life, and I see it in the clear eyes of my infant daughter.
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