|08-12-2001, 06:39 AM||#1|
BY JEAN SWENSON
You will never walk again." I first heard those frightful words in 1980, when a car accident thrust me into the world of the disabled.
At first I refused to believe it. This always happened to the other guy. But those words would be drilled into me by well-meaning people wanting to protect me from any "false hopes."
The split-second my neck was broken, everything I'd been basing my self-worth upon shattered -- appearance, abilities, opportunities to serve, respect. I began to sense pity from others. I was now at the mercy of equipment and people for my survival.
As I lay in bed or sat in my wheelchair, unable to move, I had many heart-wrenching conversations with God. "Why did this happen? What good is my life now? It's over! I can't do a thing for myself or for anyone. All I can do is just sit here."
My disability forced me to realize that many things our culture values -- performance, appearance, possessions -- can be taken away anytime. I began to understand that my value lay in something that can never be taken away, the fact that God loves me ... period.
I felt God's love as family and friends demonstrated their sacrificial love for me, and as I pondered Biblical statements about his character. I also experienced his love in very real ways.
For example, a couple of years after my injury, I met a little girl who was paralyzed and unable to speak. One day, I asked her caregiver, "May I hold her in my lap?" As this precious little girl looked up at me with her big, brown eyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of love and compassion toward her, a feeling so strong I began to weep. I prayed silently, "Lord, this is crazy. Why am I feeling such love for this little girl who can't do a thing for me? All she can do is just sit here."
Then, clear as day, this thought came into my mind: "Jean, this is exactly how I love you."
Disabilities occur through birth, trauma, disease or aging. A 1999 study estimates one in five U.S. adults may have some kind of disability.
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said that before he became paralyzed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), a neuromuscular disorder, he was bored, drank too much and did very little work. He observed, "When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have." Contentment comes from being grateful, and not demanding more than life can deliver. Yet, this doesn't mean accepting things we can change for the better.
For example, Dr. Chuck Carson, a geologist paralyzed in a plane crash, founded the Spinal Cord Society in 1978. With 200 chapters worldwide, this volunteer organization supports carefully targeted spinal cord research. (By the way, I oppose the killing of human embryos for medical research, while encouraging research using stem cells from adults.)
Living with a disability isn't easy. Often there are limitations and medical problems unseen by others. For example, many people with spinal cord injuries must battle respiratory and urinary tract problems, skin breakdown, loss of bowel and bladder control, osteoporosis and other difficulties. Medical supplies are expensive. Being dependent on others is hard.
But because of the faithful service and encouragement from family, friends, caregivers and health professionals, people like me are able to get on with our lives. I also appreciate organizations and facilities that accommodate special needs such as wheelchair accessibility or interpreters for the hearing impaired.
Our abilities and outward appearance are simply the picture frame surrounding the masterpiece of inner character being created throughout our lives. I've met people whose frame may be a little broken or aged, but whose inner character is truly beautiful. I've also met those with flawless frames whose inner character is rather dull or even ugly.
We may not have much control over the frame, but we all have the opportunity to change what's inside the frame. Because we are created in the image of God, we each have precious value, regardless of differences in abilities and disabilities. Some of us may or may not walk again, but none of us ever has to walk alone.
For those wondering how to relate to someone with a disability, here are a few general guidelines.
Some prefer to be defined as a person first, who happens to have a condition; i.e., "he has cerebral palsy" rather than "he's handicapped."
Don't be afraid to talk to people about their disabilities. I appreciate parents allowing children to ask me questions. One I hear a lot is, "If you broke your neck, how come your legs don't work?"
If you think someone could use your assistance, ask him or her. They may graciously accept or decline. If they act offended, they may just be in a bad mood, but don't let that stop you from asking the next person.
When talking with someone with a speech impairment, don't pretend to understand if you don't. Ask them to repeat, use a different phrase or spell the word.
Most importantly, relate to persons with disabilities as you would to anyone -- as individuals with unique preferences and personalities.
|08-14-2001, 01:32 PM||#3|
I tried to edit it but cant....
This column was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on August 5, 2001