A number of years ago, when I lay flat on my back paralyzed with pain from a disk injury, I got a small taste of what it is like to have to live with a disability. It’s not fun! With God’s help and the talents of several great doctors, I now am 99 percent cured and am leading an active life free of most physical restrictions. With this freedom of movement has come a dulling of the lessons I learned while still in pain. I began to forget the struggle that physically and developmentally challenged people deal with every day. I began to take my health for granted. That is until I received a request to reprint an article from my book, With Your Reach, which I titled “Oh God, Forgive Me When I Whine.” I wrote that article during my infirmity. Reading it again has brought all the memories back. I remembered how hard it was to do everyday chores but, more importantly, I remembered the humiliation of total dependency.
Now that I think back, I am sure that dependency was the hardest hurdle to overcome. The simplest bodily functions that most of us take for granted, such as going to the bathroom or taking a shower, required support, for there were no bars to hold onto in our bathroom. That was, of course, when I was strong enough to get out of bed—before that, assistance was an absolute necessity. Parking spots reserved for disabled people gave me another level of freedom, and the ramps provided by some establishments allowed me access when I was not yet strong enough to climb the stairs. Small things? Yes! But each contributed to my sense of independence and, therefore, to my sense of mental well‑being.
Today, as I walk through the world, I have a different viewpoint. Before my injury, when I saw parking spots reserved for the disabled, a wheelchair ramp, a restroom that was handicapped accessible, an elevator with Braille markings on the controls, or a person with a hearing aid, I would have thought how horrible it must be to need these things. Now I see them differently; they are reminders of freedom. They are the means to independence for millions. They provide freedom from dependence on friends and family, and are the means to reclaiming the dignity of independent action.
In January 1992, the federal government passed the American Disabilities Act, which requires public building owners and employers to create an environment “accessible” to those with disabilities. The intent of this law is to allow the disabled to participate more fully in society. There is no doubt that it costs money to make the changes, but there is every reason to expect that each of us, as we enhance the freedom of our fellow citizens by giving them access to mainstream America, will reap dividends from our investment.