It happened again just the other day. This time, I was perusing the salad bar at a local restaurant while on a lunch date with my husband Eric when a man approached us. With a slightly nervous dip of his chin, he said hello and asked how I was doing.
“I’m fantastic! How are you?” I wrote back to him on my communication board, offering him a beaming smile. Immediately, his face lit up and his shoulders relaxed. We spent the next five minutes enjoying a nice conversation that ended with us both heart-touched and misty-eyed.
In the 27 months since I began using a wheelchair for mobility, conversations struck up by complete strangers have become a common occurrence for me. Despite my naturally quiet personality, it's a rare day when I go out into the community that I am not approached by a friendly stranger who wants to say hello.
When you have a visible disability like me you are, well, visible. And, since I use an atypically-shaped wheelchair that supports my legs in front of me (or occasionally use a walker) and I communicate using a writing board and an augmentative communication device (voice machine) with a limited amount of speech mixed in, I’m hard to miss in a crowd. This, combined with the fact that the Holy Spirit has filled my spirit with joy and peace, draws people to approach me and initiate conversation.
I’ve discovered that a person with a disability may seem less threatening to approach for some. When people see my wheelchair, they know immediately that I face struggles in my own life and they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their humanity more evident as well.
We all wear masks to some degree, putting forward our created personas that can hide the pain or need for perfection that we may feel inside. However, in the face of a person who has obvious struggles and yet lives with joy, those masks can peel back a little.
At least this is what I’ve noticed through the years as I’ve transitioned from able-bodied to a person living with invisible disabilities and then to one who can easily be identified at first glance as disabled.
I recognize that for some people with disabilities it is not always the case that encounters with strangers are generally a positive experience. People with visible disabilities can be mistreated and stigmatized: I have experienced this a few times myself. It has also pained my heart to witness people treat my young adult kids with rejection; their cognitive disabilities are not readily apparent and rejection can occur when they do not behave or interact in the fashion one would expect for someone their age.
However, by and large, my own personal encounters with strangers have been positive. In fact, I’ve experienced that with some people their masks come off when they encounter me and my visible disabilities.
And this can be an opportunity. As Christians, we are called to live lives devoted to deepest love, and particularly to love those God brings across our paths.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest. He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Now, I don’t have a theological degree and I don’t work in a church or in formal Christian ministry. I’m not a missionary doing grand work in a faraway land. However, God has shown me that my life is my ministry. When I encounter a stranger who has come over to me to say hello, it is an opportunity to show love to the person standing before me. Deep down, we all desire to be loved and accepted, to be seen and valued for who we are. And so, I look that person in the eyes, greet him or her with joy and with a genuine smile, and share a moment of peace or a word of encouragement.