How do you feel when you encounter someone with a disability? My guess is that it makes most people somewhat uncomfortable. I also think most people define disability as someone in a wheelchair, walking with canes, blind, deaf, deformed, and so on -- a visible, physical impairment that sets them apart from the average person.
As a nine-year-old, I came face-to-face with this issue and I've thought about it all of my life. On the day my mother was shot to death, my father was also shot and critically wounded. The shooting left him crippled for life. He was shot in the right groin from point-blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun. The shot penetrated his upper groin, shattering his femur, and it was miraculous that he didn't bleed to death. In 1961, medicine wasn't what it is now, and as a result of many, many surgeries to rebuild his right leg, he was left with one leg shorter than the other; also, his right knee became frozen from being in a full-body cast for so many months. So my father, at age 37, came home after a year in the hospital on crutches, with a withered, stiff right leg that hung limply from his body. Before that event, he was a strong, virile man, and had been a remarkable athlete as a young man.
Eventually, my father was fitted with a shoe on his right foot that had a built-up sole to enable him to walk. However, he was never again able to walk without the assistance of canes or crutches. At first, it was somewhat embarrassing for me as a kid to watch everyone stare at my father when he was in their presence. But as time passed, I watched my father walk with his head held high, and he began a new journey that taught me everything I needed to know about disabilities, without him ever having to mention the word.
My father was never disabled. Let me say that again, for emphasis. My father was never disabled. He had one leg shot out from under him, but he didn't let that alter his approach to living. He went on living life as though nothing had happened. He went back to his job as a civil engineer. He built a room on the back of our home with his own hands and little help from others. He hobbled up and down stairs. After he built the new room addition he completely remodeled the entire two-story home, tearing out walls, moving doors, the whole bit. It took him 20 years. He worked in his garden. He mowed the yard, pushing the mower with one hand with his other hand gripping his cane. I came home one day to find him on an extension ladder, repairing a gutter two stories above the ground. Shortly before he died, at age 92, he spent most of his time in a wheelchair in a nursing home, but he was constantly pressing the staff to take him to physical therapy so he could get up out of the wheelchair and walk.
Here are the lessons I learned about disabilities from my father: 1) each person has a chance to define what disabled really means by their actions; 2) we are only as disabled as we allow ourselves to be; 3) disabled does not necessarily mean disadvantaged; 4) there are crippling disabilities that have no outward physical manifestations (i.e., mental, spiritual, and social disabilities) that are often worse than a physical disability; and 5) a person with a disability has the same feelings as anyone else, and deserves to be approached and treated with respect and dignity.
I remember those lessons when I'm roaming the streets, documenting life as it happens around me. And so there is no fear or hesitation for me to engage someone like this lady. If I happen to be with a group of photographers, I sometimes see them back off or cringe as I approach a "disabled" person to speak with them and take their photograph. Later on, the photographers often speak with amazement as to how the person responded to me and how "brave" I was to engage them. And I understand -- the concept of "disabilities" that most people have are formed from a safe distance and without first-hand experience.
I think it's now becoming clearer to many people in the world, that the greater disabilities are those that impair the heart, the mind, and the soul -- and not the body. Most of those with physical disabilities are really heroes among us, disguised by the wheelchair, the canes, or device that assists them with daily life. Those with impairment of the heart, the mind, and the soul, often disguised by wealth, position, and place, are only heroes to those unfortunate enough to have known someone like my father, or the lady in this photograph, and to therefore realize the true meaning of "disability". It's my hope that after reading this, you will see and speak to the heroes among us, and recognize them for who they are.