Susan was a doctoral candidate with a bright future the night her life changed forever. The evening bicycle ride with her husband was something they did regularly but would never share again. After the freak accident in 1994, her entire left leg had to be amputated.
For a brilliant woman of deep faith in Christ, it was a horrific blow.
Months of rehabilitation culminated in her first foray in public. She and her cohort of fellow amputees from the rehab center were to attend a play.
“And I learned that day that I was a non-person,” she told me.
Susan explained that when most pedestrians encounter each other in the street, they nod or say hello. For some reason, when they see a person in a wheelchair, they look away.
Thirty-one years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the treatment of people with handicaps has improved significantly. The sweeping civil rights legislation made it illegal to discriminate against the disabled in public accommodations, employment, transportation, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.
But all the ramps and elevators and parking permits in the world cannot adequately convey what it is to be a person with disabilities trying to function in an able-bodied world.
“The worst thing was, I couldn’t get my Ph.D.,” Susan told me. That’s because her doctoral committee wanted her to travel to Peru to complete her research. Throughout the developing world, accessibility for the disabled is sharply limited. Most places don’t have ramps. With no way to get around the South American nation, Susan was forced to relinquish her dream. For the last 27 years, she’s been in a wheelchair.
And even though the ADA has made things a bit easier here in the U.S., she says she still struggles. Turns out those “huge” bathroom stalls in restaurants that might seem like overkill to the able-bodied are not so roomy after all. There are times she’s able to maneuver her way in, but then the stall door won’t close. “I have just as much of a right to privacy as the next person,” she declared.
Of course you do, I found myself nodding.
Consider the words of Jesus in His teaching about the Last Judgement: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for Me (Matthew 25:40).” Our brothers and sisters with disabilities truly are Jesus in disguise.
For me, one of the best things about being a journalist is getting to have encounters like the one I had with Susan. On the surface, I was gathering a few quotes to lend a little context for an article in Wrangler News about the 31st anniversary of the ADA. Meeting Susan made me ponder what it would be like to be disabled.
“I think everyone should spend a day in a wheelchair,” Susan told me. What a gift that would be to see what it’s really like.
Her comment made me think back to a day years ago when I took a disabled woman for a day of shopping and errands. Between yanking her wheelchair out of the trunk of my vehicle to helping her into the various stores’ motorized shopping carts to getting her back into the car, it was exhausting. I remember taking her into the oversized dressing room to try on clothes. There was maybe a half-inch clearance for the scooter once we managed to get inside and turn around.
I went home and took a nap afterwards. And that was just one day!
It made me think about how Jesus gets it. How He understands our brokenness and our frail humanity. He knows exactly what it’s like to be unable to walk and to be crushed by a burden. Contemplate for a moment the terrible weight of the cross He bore for our salvation. He knows what it’s like to be ignored, belittled, forgotten and abandoned, even by those whom He loved.
And He did it in spite of our sins and ingratitude. He did it for love of sinners like me and you.
We worship a God who understands us perfectly, and in a world torn apart by division and strife, He knows when we feel unable to move forward, paralyzed by fear. He knows what it’s like to fall, to have a broken heart, to weep and to sweat and to struggle.
He stands ready to help us stand after a fall. He empowers us to look beyond ourselves and see those around us who need our love and affection and assistance. People like Susan.
And He speaks to us, if only we’ll listen, from the heart of those persons many of us are afraid to look in the eye as we stroll down the street.
Jesus in disguise. Do we recognize Him? And what exactly are we going to do about it?