July 26 was the 20th anniversary of George H.W. Bush signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. I went on full disability five years ago, thereby officially joining what some people with handicaps call the crip nation. Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate a few things.
I appreciate what our society has done for people like me. Take my frequent trips to the Forest Park pool, for example. Because the new pool was built six years after the act was voted into law, its construction complies with ADA standards. Just a few steps from the pool entrance, there’s a space I can park. There are no steps to negotiate because everything is on one level. There are no high thresholds to trip over.
Changes in the construction of pubic buildings have made life easier for us crips. So have attitudes. Most people are extra careful when they see me coming, removing towels and flip-flops from my path. I feel especially at home when people with the West Suburban Special Recreation Association join me in the water. We’re no longer freaks to be stared at. People are just as used to seeing us crips as they are to seeing balding gray-haired guys. (I’m one of those, too.)
We folks with handicaps readily acknowledge all the help we get. An officer making sure I get across Madison Street. OK. A friend giving me a steady arm to hold on to as I try to negotiate the steep steps at Wrigley Field – no railings for me to hold onto there. The chamber board working extra hard to understand my slurred speech. The people at church not minding at all when my slow gait holds up the line for Communion.
But I also appreciate voices from the crip nation declaring that American society needs us as much as we need them. Here are two examples:
Five years ago, I was “hiking” – it was really more like penguin waddling – along a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. I heard steps behind me, so I got off the trail to let the hiker, who turned out to be a young woman in her 20s, pass. “Go ahead, I’m slow,” I said.
“No problem,” she replied. “I’ll walk with you for a few minutes.
Surprised and pleased – she was very attractive – I said, “Great.”
So we walked together a way’s, talking about how beautiful the scenery and the late September weather was, when she said, “You know, you probably see more than I do.” Twenty yards farther down the trail, she said, “Have a good hike” and soon disappeared around the next bend.
When that young, temporarily abled woman made her spontaneous observation, I think what she was asking herself was, “Am I in too much of a rush as I make my way through life? Am I so focused on achieving goals – in this case, on getting in a 5-mile hike – that I don’t even notice the golden aspen leaves falling lazily into the mountain stream a few feet from the trail as it gurgles over the rocks?”
A second example. A friend of mine has been healthy his whole life. Although well into his 60s, he is still able to ride a hundred miles a day on his bicycle. And – he’s scared to death of dying.
In contrast, I’ve been thinking about my own eventual death for 15 years now, ever since the neurologist trying to diagnosis my disorder said I might have Lou Gehrig’s disease. If that had been true, I would probably have been dead 10 years ago. Looking back at those days, I think that having been forced to face my own mortality made me make some kind of peace with it. My friend, I think, has been running – or riding – away from his mortality.
Some people, when they see me struggle with my disorder, pray, “I hope something like that never happens to me.” Others recognize that, sooner or later, they will be like me in one way or another, and they take advantage of their encounter with a citizen of the crip nation to start coming to terms with their own limits as human beings.
The bottom line is that we need each other.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.