I watched Pete heave his aged frame from his walker, gripping the handle with one hand, using the other to keep his pants from tumbling to the floor while he reinserted his belt into its loops. I knew that Pete did not want help. He still possessed enough pride to put his own pants on. A TSA agent walked down the aisle, navigating belongings strewn across the floor. He came to Pete’s shoes, gave them a kick, and exclaimed, “I don’t know why people leave things laying all over my floor.” For a brief second, my heart was torn between the desire to demand an apology, and the realization that verbally chastising a security official was not going to get us on our airplane. I stayed in my seat, but that incident marks the moment in my life when I became an advocate for persons with disabilities.
Despite one or two bright spots, I have been very uncomfortable around people with disabilities for most of my life. I responded to my discomfort by attempting to eliminate it. I never deliberately mistreated someone with a disability. I just pretended they didn’t exist.
Several years ago, I took a study trip to Israel as part of a graduate degree program. In our group of about 40 people was a man named Pete, a pastor. Pete was far from what you’d expect a pastor to be. He had retired into the pastorate after a career in the Navy, and his demeanor was more suited to calling down hell-fire on those swabbing the decks (if the Navy still does such things) than it was to declaring faith, hope, and love from the pulpit.
Pete suffered from a number of health issues, and used a walker to get around. It had a flip-down seat that would convert it into a sort of wheelchair. Together, a handful of us pushed and pulled Pete across the Holy Land. It wasn’t always easy. Even at their peak, ancient cities were not designed with accessibility in mind. Their ruins sometimes proved a challenge for the most mobile of us. Pete somehow managed to take it all in stride, while still clearly articulating his displeasure with the state of his mobility. When the terrain proved too difficult, he would find some scenic vantage point and sit quietly while the rest of us continued exploring. But, if there was any possibility that he could make it up that three-thousand-year-old cobblestone ramp, he was going to give it a try, a try laced with all the grunts, grumbles, and complaints he could muster.
There is a city called Hazor. A few thousand years ago it was an impenetrable fortress overlooking a broad valley. An enemy challenged the king’s ego, and he marched his army out of the thick walls to fight below. Today, you can see the intact stone walls still ringing the city, and the blackened remains of the palace that was burned to the ground while left unguarded. When I met Pete, I was drawn from my carefully prepared defenses against the disabled, and while I played in the valley, my prejudices were destroyed.
One morning, a few members of our group began complaining about Pete’s grumpy disposition. I lost my temper. On paper, this was an adventure Pete could not do, but he did it. The fact that he was unpleasant while doing portions of it made him human to me. Yes, was grumpy. This was exceedingly difficult him, but he still did it. At some point I realized that his disability caused more discomfort for him than it did for me. I acknowledge that is hardly the “Aha!” moment it seemed to me at the time. Pete altered my perspective on those with disabilities. These were not anomalies of nature, difficult to understand, and best avoided. These were normal people accomplishing hard things, doing their best to overcome the obstacles they faced. Not only could I understand that, I could honor that. We should all demonstrate such courage and determination. Today, I look back on those weeks spent pushing Pete around Israel, listening to his colorful commentary, and consider myself privileged.
If you want evidence that there’s a God who is active in the world, try this on. Four months after I met Pete, my son Isaac was born. Isaac has a disability. He uses a walker to get around. It has a flip-down seat that converts it into a sort of wheelchair. He is not always happy with the challenges that he must overcome, but he tackles them nonetheless. We had to make changes, in attitude and lifestyle, as Isaac unapologetically elbowed his way into our hearts, but discomfort with who he is has never been one of those struggles. Pete already burnt that palace to the ground.
Nathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. He writes about the amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges. In his free time he . . . doesn’t have free time.