What My Handicap Has Taught Me
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: I submitted this essay to The New Era, the monthly magazine for youth ages 12-18 in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—as well as for others who are, at least, young at heart—in the mid-1990s. While it was declined for publication, I included it in my autobiography, My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years (: Collierville TN: Instantpublisher.com) 162-167. It includes many of the lessons I learned from my young friend, Lisa, who also has Cerebral Palsy and about whom I wrote on the Blog on April 21 (see the following address): https://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/lisa-my-teacher/.
I was born nearly 10 weeks prematurely, and I have Cerebral Palsy as a result There are many things I’d like to be able to do that I won’t be able to do in this life. There are many other things I can do that I’d like to be able to do better, but again, I won’t be able to in this life.
But when I ponder why I have been given the particular set of challenges I have, I don’t often ask myself, “Why can’t I do what I can do?” Instead, I ask myself, “Why can I do what I can do?”
CP could have taken my ability to walk, my ability to use my other limbs, my ability to speak, and my ability to take care of myself, but it didn’t. I think part of the reason why it didn’t is so that I could help others with CP and other handicaps to ensure that their voices will be heard. I’ve often asked myself, “What do we want to say to others who might have a difficult time interacting with people who are so obviously ‘different’?”
First and most important, although people with handicaps may look different, they’re not different from anyone else in the ways that matter most. Handicaps need not stop anyone from doing what’s really important, such as loving our neighbor as ourselves, such as doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, such as accepting each other for who we are—and never forgetting what we can become. After all, all of us, whether we’re handicapped or not, were created in the image of God, and we should all receive the image of Christ in our countenances. Beyond that, the way we look shouldn’t matter.
Besides, aren’t we all handicapped in some way? I consider myself fortunate for another reason: people can clearly see my biggest handicap, and because most people want to be good, they’re willing to help me in whatever way I need. But I know dozens of people who don’t get the help they need to face their handicaps because those handicaps are invisible. Many people are handicapped emotionally, socially, psychologically, and in many other ways which are difficult to see. And many of those challenges are bigger than the physical handicaps we think are so formidable.
That’s another reason why it’s so important to look on the inside. If we don’t, we miss out on many chances to help our brothers and sisters at times that count most: when they need help, but they don’t know how to ask. It’s true that the Lord sees what’s in our hearts at all times, and He’s always ready and willing to help us. But often, He uses his children to minister to their brothers and sisters at those times of need. We need to keep our hearts open so we know whom, when, and how to help.
The Lord won’t always direct us in this way, though, because if we don’t do anything until we are commanded, we are slothful and unwise servants. Sometimes we see people who are in difficulty but we aren’t sure how to offer help, especially if a handicap is the cause of that difficulty. “We’re afraid that our offers will be misunderstood or rejected. The answer to the question, “What would Christ do in this situation?” is obvious. The answer to the question “How would He do it?” is less obvious.
We can ensure that our offers to help the handicapped are accepted when we allow the potential recipient to decide how much and what kind of help is necessary. If we first find out whether help is needed—“Can I help you?”—and then find out what kind of help is needed—“Would you like me to carry that?” (or to hold the door, et cetera)—we avoid giving the false impression of pity and preserve the self-respect of the person we’re trying to help.
Sometimes, our offers to help will be rejected not because the person we’re trying to help is offended, but simply because the person feels the need to develop greater self-reliance. Self-reliance is an important asset for all of us, but especially for the handicapped, who can’t afford to take the ability to do many things for granted. However, we shouldn’t automatically withhold help from anyone in the name of “helping them to develop self-reliance,” because if we do, we may rob them of needed help, and we may rob ourselves of the chance to develop charity.
On the other hand, self-pity should not be tolerated, because if it is indulged, it will eventually lead to an unnecessary dependence on others which is as devastating as dependence upon any drug. When self-pity leads to unnecessary dependence upon others, it steals moral agency, and ultimately robs children of God of their potential to become like Him.
“When am I abridging self-reliance and promoting unnecessary dependence upon others?” is a valid question when it comes to helping the handicapped, and it can be difficult to answer. But most of the time, the answer should be left to the person we’re trying to help. When we rely upon the Spirit of the Lord and listen carefully to our brothers and sisters, we can tell the difference between a request which comes from self-pity and one which comes from a genuine need. If the request comes from self-pity, we can offer needed encouragement and reinforcement instead of offering unneeded help. If the request comes from a genuine need, we are then in a position to offer whatever help is needed.
If we offer help according to these guidelines and someone does become offended, we can safely assume that the problem lies with that person, not with us. If we continue to follow the promptings of His Spirit, the Lord can make us instruments in his hands to help those who have become offended overcome that feeling.
We can give others the benefit of the doubt, because even though it takes courage to offer to help someone, it takes even more courage to accept help graciously when it is offered to us. To do so means to admit that there are times when life is not a do-it-yourself operation. Because there are so many things that the handicapped cannot do of things which we have trouble doing, often, it is hard for us to admit we need help. But all of us rely on the help of others far more often than we realize. For example, given the choice between walking or flying from Los Angeles to New York, no doubt we’d choose to fly. In so doing, we would have to depend upon the pilot, the crew, and the plane to get us there. Even Christ, strong as He is, couldn’t carry his cross to Calvary without help. And all of us need the grace of His Atoning Sacrifice to make it back to our Heavenly Father.
There may be many challenges for we who are handicapped at being successful in life. Non-handicapped people look at us and marvel at the challenges we so “courageously” face in part because they are not handicapped. If they were handicapped, they would realize that we don’t seek to overcome these challenges because we want to live “exceptional” lives; we seek to overcome these challenges because we want to live “normal” lives. We don’t want life to give us special terms just because we’re handicapped. We want to play and win the game of life on the same terms as anyone else. And since the game of life is a team effort, maybe we can play the game—and share the victories—together. If we have to work harder than most to win those victories we need not be pitied for that, because it will make those victories far, far sweeter.
All of us are, to one degree or another, striving to accept handicaps and their attendant circumstances. If handicaps bring circumstances we can change, then acceptance of those circumstances is the first step toward that change. If handicaps bring circumstances we cannot change, then acceptance of those circumstances brings peace.
I used to waste my time trying to convince people to accept me in spite of my handicap. Now I want people to accept me handicap and all, because without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Being confined at home for months at a time gave me two choices: one, allow the fact that I couldn’t participate in physical activities to drive me crasy, or two, to shift my focus from my physical development to my mental, emotional, and spiritual development. Because I chose the latter, I am a more articulate, empathetic human being. My handicap has taught me a great deal that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, such as empathy for the struggles of others and perseverance in the face of obstacles.
In her autobiography, a prominent actress with Cerebral Palsy says that those two words are the ugliest words in the English language. I disagree. I think there are far uglier words, words like ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice, and hate. It’s true that I’ve had to deal with these things because I have CP, but my CP didn’t create them: people’s reactions to my CP created them.
Even so, I thank my Heavenly Father every day for my handicap. For me, there is no better opportunity to help others overcome those four ugly words. There is no better opportunity to learn to accept and love others, because thats what handicapped people need in return; the best way to get acceptance and love is to give them away. If we give love and acceptance and don’t get them in return, that is the best way to learn true giving. And there is no better way to learn gratitude for what one has than to be deprived of abilities that others take for granted. And there is no better way to gain a perspective on what is truly important in life than to have a handicap which removes much of the excess baggage in which we carry trivial things.
I thank my Heavenly Father for the examples of others who are playing and winning the game of life with the hand that life has dealt them—as unfavorable as that hand may appear to be. In the same way that others with handicaps—both visible and invisible—have taught me, I hope that my Heavenly Father will make me an instrument in His hands to teach others through my handicap.