I work with a woman, Sarah, who has several severe physical challenges. She walks with a pronounced limp and cane, and she speaks with slightly slurred speech. I do not know the reason for her physical problems — stroke, accident, something else — and it is absolutely none of my business. More importantly, her challenges are overshadowed by her beaming smile, positive attitude, and work ethic. I smile every time I see her.
Earlier this week, we left work at the same time. As we reached the end of the elevator lobby, I held the door for her and watched as she walked through the doorway into the main lobby. I silently marveled at her resiliency, and I felt that momentary high of witnessing the essential goodness and spirit of another person.
This isn’t new for me.
One of my earliest childhood memories is attending a Special Olympics event with my mother. She was a special education teacher for the first decade or so of her teaching career, and, for several years, she actually taught out of a trailer behind the school. (By the way, when you look up “hero” in the dictionary, a special education teacher toiling away in a trailer is pretty damn high up there.) Although the specifics are pretty fuzzy at this point, even at that young age I can remember the strangeness of the experience. The exposure to people with mental and physical handicaps made me uncomfortable. I especially remember seeing an amputee with numerous warts on his arms. I’m sure my childhood brain couldn’t process the reality before me, but, while it was challenging, I also remember the sheer excitement around the event. I recall the pure love and energy that friends and family poured out as they watched their loved ones compete. To see those with such limitations persevere was, and still is, perhaps the most emotionally intoxicating thing I’ve ever seen.
For as long as I can remember, show me a Special Olympics commercial, and I’m in tears. If a story about a handicap person comes on television, the waterworks come on. I can’t control it. The triumph of the will seems so pure, so real. It is unfettered joy, it is a soul devoid of mortal corruption. It touches me on some profound level that I cannot explain.
A funny thing happened, though, as I watched Sarah walk away from me through the lobby. A voice inside my head asked, “If you admire her so much for overcoming the obstacles you can see, why don’t you give everyone credit for overcoming the obstacles you can’t see?”
I had never considered that angle before. As I’ve gotten older, I understand that my reaction to the handicapped is actually a bit patronizing. The handicapped aren’t angels sent to Earth to reminder us of how lucky we are. When we think like that, we actually dehumanize them. No, the disabled among us can be every bit the asses we all are. They aren’t some sugary sweet Hallmark card or some inspirational poster that we ponder for a few moments before moving on with our lives. I think the best way to respect a disabled person is to respect them as a person. Not a disabled person, but a person.
On the flip side, my moment in the lobby, holding the door for Sarah, made me think that, if I can hold such compassion and care for her, why not everyone else? Why not the coworker struggling with a depression that I can’t see? Why not the cashier that overcame years of abuse? And how about the mail carrier that beat an addiction? All obstacles. All outrageously sad and difficult and painful. And, all very, very human.
I’ll keep smiling when I see Sarah, and I know I’ll cry at the next Special Olympics commercial. But I think I’ll start making an effort to open up my list of those at which I marvel. We’ve all overcome something. We’re all inspiring, and we all deserve to be cheered for, loved, and met with a smile. Is it just a little cute, a little precious, a little too clichéd? Probably so, but that doesn’t make it any less true.