I remember it like it was just last week I was a senior in high school, and I applied for a scholarship to college. It was through a group called the Exchange Club of the Magic Circle and if I remember correctly, it was similar to a Rotary Club. They had chosen me as their youth of the month several months previously, and one of the members encouraged me to apply for this scholarship.
The process was intense. I had to fill out lots of paperwork and write an essay about what I wanted to do with my life. What I remember most distinctly, though, is that I had to get letters of support from people in all areas of my life. The head coach of the sports team that I was on wrote a letter, as did the priest from the Catholic church I attended at the time. Several of my teachers wrote letters of support as well as some of my friends, my guidance counselor, and the school registrar. The letters were awesome if I do say so myself. People talked about my big smile and my positive attitude and how they had watched me work so hard to reach my goals. But almost every letter included something else. Most people who I had asked to support me in the effort to get this scholarship said something to the effect of “When you spend five or ten minutes with Lorraine, you forget the wheelchair and simply focus on her bubbly personality.” Even then, that phrase rubbed me the wrong way, even though people intended it to be a compliment. All those years ago I could not begin to articulate why.
I understand why that kind of thing bothers me now. That phrase is a lie.
Of course people see my wheelchair. They see it every time they look at me because I am sitting in it. When I have an interaction with anyone, my wheelchair is something that is pretty hard to miss. Because I don’t drive, if I go anywhere with anyone, they have to fold it and put it in their car. My wheelchair is vital to my life. Without it, I would be as helpless as a bird without wings. My wheelchair is a tool that helps me get from place to place. What people were saying in their letters of support would only be a compliment if I saw my disability as a bad thing.
I have said for years that I believe with everything that is in me that disability is a difference, not a weakness. I consider it to be a diversity. And I know, given the life that I live, that it does not define me, in fact, it is only one part of who I am.
So these days, now that I know a little more about advocacy than I did when I was in high school and I have a whole lot more life experience, when I hear someone say “I don’t see your wheelchair” that is the equivalent of telling somebody else “After a few minutes with you, I don’t see your blond hair, or I don’t notice that you have freckles or saying to a feminist, “you don’t seem like a woman to me.”
I have a disability. I have had it since I was born. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of it. My life circumstances simply are what they are.
What I hope people mean when they say they don’t see my wheelchair is that after a few minutes with me, it becomes clear to them that I try to play the hand that I have been dealt with grace and dignity. My hope is that when people say they do not see my wheelchair, they are telling me that they are choosing to focus on what they see in my heart instead.
Back in high school, I read a book by a woman named Joni Eareckson. She was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was seventeen years old and the accident rendered her a quadriplegic. The story was about how she learned to adjust to her life after her accident. She talks about being in a dark place, struggling with depression, and the change in her sense of identity. One day, a friend of hers said something profound to her, and this quote has stuck with me for decades.
Her friend said: “Joni, your body in that chair is just the frame of God’s portrait of you. People don’t go to art galleries just to admire frames. Instead, the focus on the quality and the character of the paintings.”
The “frame” is still there; it’s just not the most important part of the painting.