This article is part of our Fall 2022 issue of Breaking Barriers. This installment focuses on acquired disability. Most people with disabilities were not born with their disability, but acquired it through stroke, accident, illness, aging, etc. In this issue, people describe how their acquired disability has affected them, what they’ve lost, and what they’ve gained. If you'd like to read more stories from this issue, please subscribe to Breaking Barriers.
On a beautiful summer evening—perfect for berry picking—I was riding my powerchair down a river path near my home. When I joyfully greeted a woman on the path, using my communication board, she anxiously blurted out, “What am I going to do with you? You can’t be out here by yourself!”
Startled, I discovered she felt the need to help me find safety, just as if I was a lost young child. I explained I have full capacity to be alone, but as I bid her farewell, her expression remained dubious.
One of the most astounding things about living with an acquired disability is the vast difference in how strangers interact. It’s shocking because I’m the exact same person I always was. (Once people get to know me, they usually realize they can interact with me like anyone else.) Sometimes it’s subtle, like being stared at or talked to like a child, or when servers ask my husband for my order. Often, it is increased kindness. Only rarely is it with malice.
My physical abilities have changed numerous times. Until age 19, I had typical abilities. After that, I lived with an invisible disability for several years, which was super hard as I experienced judgment when I couldn’t do things many others could, but people didn’t know why.
As my condition progressed, I began to live with communication disabilities. I still appeared “normal” until people spoke to me; then, they’d get flustered. In my mid-30s, I lost the ability to walk. With a wheelchair, everyone now saw my disability. This was when I was treated most differently: infantilized, defeminized, othered, or, alternatively, friendlier.
For six years, I’ve fought to regain mobility. Today I use a wheelchair for outings and a walker or cane for short distances or sitting. When I’m not using the chair, I’m treated much more “normally.” The difference in treatment is shocking even though I’m the same person.
Yet, as bizarre an experience as this has been, I’m grateful because God has transformed the way I interact with others. My heart has opened to those around me. In a world that sees differences and adjusts treatment accordingly, God has shown me that differences don’t change our mutual humanity. Every heart cries for love, dignity, and acceptance. For warm friendship. To be seen as we are. To matter.
When we are “othered,” whether because of disability or something else, we have two choices: to believe it, or to remember who we are and Whose we are—and then to live out Christ’s love accordingly.
As Christians, we have a calling to love. This doesn’t change because of a disability that changes how people interact with us. The ableism I’ve faced can be a call to never treat another in the way I have been treated. It can be the impetus to love those God brings across our paths.