Ad Clerum on The View from a Wheelchair

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6–7)

Thanks to my fractured fibula and the cast that I now wear on my right leg, for the past four weeks, my primary mode of transportation has been a wheelchair. It has given me a very different view of life. At the most basic level, instead of looking down on most people from my normal 6-foot, 2-inch height, I am now confronting most people at around waist height – not a very inspiring perspective! I have also become something of a non-person...people tend to ignore me and speak to the person who is pushing my chair – assuming that my broken leg suggests that I am also suffering from significant mental impairment. When I attempt to join the conversation, I am often referred to in the third person: “It must be so difficult for him. How is he doing?”

“Just ask me!” I want to shout, but instead I just give a feeble smile and urge my chair pusher forward.

Shopping at the local grocery store proved to be especially exciting. Determined to regain some control of my life, I decided to try one of those motorized shopping carts. Driving it was a lot more challenging than it first appeared...the turning radius is substantial and the forward/reverse control highly sensitive. While I did avoid colliding with the various displays in the aisles, I had several near misses with other shoppers who seemed to consider me invisible. After a while I simply shouted, “Watch out! I don’t have a license and I am dangerous!” But there were many people who were so engrossed with their phones or the arduous task of grocery product selection that they refused to let me pass. My 20-year-old grandson Joshua, who served as my faithful chair pusher, suggested that if I make another shopping trip, I should go armed with a water pistol to clear the way!

There is something quite humbling about being dependent on someone else to get me in and out of the chair and to take me to places that I don’t necessarily want to visit. I have often been reminded of that rather oblique comment made by Jesus to Peter: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

In all of my adventures, however,I am always reminded of the many people for whom a wheelchair is not a temporary inconvenience but a lifetime companion. My appreciation for them and their quiet dignity and faithfulness grows daily. Jody Farmer is one of my favorite wheelchair saints. Jody’s husband Alex serves as Rector of Servants of Christ Church in Gainesville, Florida. A few years ago, she wrote “The view from my wheelchair,” an article for their local newspaper:

On a recent Saturday, my husband and I were doing some local shopping. To help you understand what happened next, you need to know that I am a 43-year-old woman, I am married with three children, two away in college.

I work as a manager at Naylor publications and I happen to live my life in a wheelchair. I have a form of muscular dystrophy and in 2006, after a horrific fall which shattered my right leg, I went from being 5-foot-10 to 4 feet with wheels. My life changed. I went from being Jody to the chick in the chair.

I fought hard not to allow my disease to define me. I felt as if I was doing a fair job transitioning to my new life, but those I encountered in the outside world would not allow it.

If I had money to represent each comment toward me, I would’ve already gone on my trip to Ireland with my husband. Comments such as, “Are you married? He must be nice.” “Do you have children?” “Do you have a license to drive that chair?” One of my least favorite: “Are you going to get worse? Is there anything they can do?”

Please keep in mind, I don’t know any of these people! I’ve never had one conversation with them in my entire life! For some odd reason, a person in a wheelchair brings on instant conversation.

As the years have gone by my life has become richer and I have become more and more content, which I see as a true gift. God has brought me so far.

So now back to this recent Saturday. When we were shopping,I was looking around the store. An older woman who worked there stopped me dead in my tracks and said, “It’s not fair that you get to ride around and I have to walk.”

I replied kindly, “Trust me, be grateful that you can walk.”

She made another comment,at which point my husband intervened and explained to her that I had a muscle disease and tried to educate her on probably what not to say to a person in a wheelchair next time.

I decided in that moment that people were not being hurtful–they are just ignorant when it comes to handicap etiquette.

So I felt as if a little education was in order. As I left the store the woman came over and apologized. She said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” I told her I understand that people just don’t know what to say.

With that she said, “Well it’s either me saying something funny or me saying I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

I said, “Next time just say hello.”

I am convinced that Jody is teaching us not only lessons about handicap etiquette but also a rather more basic lesson that was first exemplified by Jesus himself, who, “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6–8)

If we, like Jesus, are actually willing to humble ourselves when we engage with one another and especially with those we consider somehow less important than we are, then we might all have a different and more Christlike view of life. We must never dismiss or marginalize people simply because their life experience is different from ours – perhaps they have a lot to teach us.

I am still learning ... Your brother in Christ ...