I read the saddest prayer request recently. It said, in part, “__’s son __ took his own life last Saturday. ___had a bad accident a few years ago and was paralyzed and wheelchair dependent. His anguish is over. . .”
All I could think of was loss:
• loss of someone’s precious son
• loss of the opportunity to minister to this man
• loss of the opportunity to educate him about the possibilities his wheelchair afforded him
And I thought of the wording of this request, “his anguish is over.” Why does the world regard life in a wheelchair as anguish? Why are we “wheelchair dependent” and not liberated by our wheelchairs?
I thought back to when I first started using a wheelchair, nearly thirteen years ago. I was so blessed to have angels who guided me into the process; Lupita and Santiago, who prepared me for life in a wheelchair before I actually got one, and Jill, who modeled life in a wheelchair every day.
When I first realized I might have to live life in a wheelchair, I fought the idea. I was struggling with a walker, telling myself and everyone around me that it was “temporary.” The reality was that I was in terrible pain, that I could walk only a few feet before I had to stop and sit and give my back and knees a rest. At the end of class I had to struggle back to my apartment and rest with ice on my knees and tears in my eyes.
Santiago and Lupita looked at me and asked, “What if this isn’t temporary? You need to think about what you will do.” And they showed me how they arranged their home and did their chores and got around in their wheelchairs. Santiago drove and had a service dog, two things I hadn’t thought about. I admired their practicality, and the way they didn’t let anything get in their way, but found a way to work around everything.
When I got my chair, I realized it was a blessing. I was no longer in so much pain. I could get places much faster than I could in a walker. I used to walk fast, and now I could ride fast! My friends joked I would get a speeding ticket.
My friend Jill fought the norms and stereotypes to become a teacher in 1968, despite becoming a quadriplegic following a ski accident. She was also an artist and philanthropist, raising tens of thousands of dollars for Native American scholarships. She was also the first person to volunteer for the mentoring program our church started in the 1990s. She once said, “I never thought of myself as a different person because of the accident.” She also drove and I’d see her van around town as she did some shopping or sketching.
Perhaps we should consider forming “angel groups” in our churches to welcome new wheelchair users, and others dealing with new disabilities into the fold. I keep wondering what would have happened to __ if someone had been his angel, his encourager, had helped him into the land of disability and opened his eyes to the new possibilities that awaited him.
We also need to work on the attitudes of those around us. I remember comments about my “giving up” or “not praying hard enough,” questions about when I was going to “get better,” many expressions of sympathy for the tragedy that had overtaken my life. Some assumed I couldn’t continue in ministry. Many assumed my life was over. We must change this mindset!
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12 NRSV
Dear Lord, Help us. Help us to recognize the pain in others’ hearts, and to reach out in love and understanding. Help us to share each person’s worth and value, and celebrate their role in our human family. Each of us has a part to play, has something to give. Help us lift up and encourage each other to be your servants in this world. Amen.