It would have been better if I had been disabled from birth. I was born to a very athletic family; my relatives won state and national championships in swimming and skiing. My mother was a world class swimmer. During my first years in elementary school, I was always athletic and often picked to be a captain when choosing teams in gym class, and I came to expect that. However, after I suffered a heat stroke at the age of seven, I was always the last person picked for a team. My life had changed forever.
One hot summer day in Philadelphia, where my family lived, I was standing next to a blazing barbeque in my friend’s backyard while wearing my favorite outfit: an army uniform. It was made of a heavy, canvas material and had long sleeves. I remember feeling hot and my friend’s uncle asking me, “Jeff, what’s wrong?” I didn’t think anything was wrong, but I suddenly collapsed. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, semi-conscious, and he was giving me ice and salty bouillon. I had suffered an extreme heat stroke that resulted in paralysis of my entire left side. I was in the hospital for three weeks; it took four months before I could walk again.
After my paralysis, my mother refused to let me use crutches or a wheelchair, and that taught me to do things for myself. In my life I’ve been a body builder, a lacrosse player, a bowler, and I’ve learned many different forms of martial arts: Shokotan and Kempo Karate, Judo, Kendo, and Aikido.
Because you cannot tell at first glance that I’m disabled, I’ve grown familiar with a look of bewilderment and confusion that crosses people’s faces when they first realize my left side is semi-paralyzed. I just wish people would feel comfortable enough to bring it up in conversation. It doesn’t offend me when people ask about it.
I don’t hesitate to talk to people when I can see they have a disability. I just ask them what happened and share what I’ve dealt with. It opens up a connection between us every time. I think my career has suffered because of my disability; I have been close to homelessness in the past. Consequently, I have an affinity for people experiencing homelessness, which is why I find it rewarding to work with these guys at the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach.
People with disabilities tend to be more creative and adaptable than people realize. I have figured out how to do most things in my own way. I may not do them the conventional way, but my way is just as fast and efficient. I appreciate it when people just let me do things differently and not make a big deal about it. It’s just different; it’s not wrong.
Statistically, people with disabilities earn 10-15% less money than non-disabled people in the same jobs. There is a 65% unemployment rate among disabled people. 70% of disabled people have been abused. Over 30 million Americans are currently disabled. In fact, everyone will be disabled for some part of their life.
I’ve prayed for many things in my life, but oddly, I’ve never prayed for the full functionality of my left side again. It’s just something I’ve lived with and have accepted as God’s will. When people treat me differently, I often wonder if it’s because of my disability, but I never really know. Honestly I don’t even think about it most days. It’s just a part of who I am.
This article first appeared in the Spring issue of our Diocesan Messenger.
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