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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Letting the scales fall away

Another Angle: the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor. This column originally appeared in the Hart County News-Herald 28 January 2007.
The next earlier Another Angle: Poets and Poetry for December, Kentucky Poet Effie Waller Smith

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Letting the scales fall away

The narrative in chapters 8 and 9 of the Book of Acts follows the story of Saul, a leading persecutor of the people who were followers of the Christ. After witnessing with approval the stoning of Stephen, Saul received letters of authorization to travel to Damascus and seize any Christians he found there. On that very road he was stuck blind by a flash of light and challenged by the voice of the Lord for his cruelty. Told to proceed to Damascus, he went to the city, blinded and unable to eat for three days.

Meanwhile, in Damascus a devout follower of Jesus, Ananias, received a command to go to Saul:

The Lord said to Ananias, "Go! I have chosen him to tell foreigners, kings, and the people of Israel about me. I will show him how much he must suffer for worshiping in my name." Ananias left and went into the house where Saul was staying. Ananias placed his hands on him and said, "Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me. He is the same one who appeared to you along the road. He wants you to be able to see and to be filled with the Holy Spirit." Suddenly something like fish scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see. He got up and was baptized. Then he ate and felt much better. (Acts 9:15-19, CEV)

After the scales fell away, Saul (later called Paul, beginning at Acts 13 after he and Barnabas were consecrated for missionary work) became the pioneering evangelist of the new faith. The scales fell away, and Saul saw things clearly with his eyes as well as with his heart.

Years spent in wheelchair were illuminating

Some of us have "Damascus Road" experiences in our lives, moments when events cause our viewpoints to pivot and we suddenly realize that which we have previously missed or ignored. For me, the two and a half years I spent in a wheelchair were illuminating. I learned a lot about people and their attitudes. Some people are naturally kind and helpful, some people look right through folks who appear to be a bother, never even acknowledging their existence, while still others are clearly irritated or frightened by the mere presence of folks who have disabilities.

I now know that those of us on the receiving end of those attitudes catch the drift of things right away. Sometimes our experience is hopeful and consoling, confirming the existence of human compassion. At other times our encounter is one of gruff insensitivity or even hostility.

Home Bound by Cass Irvin

I don't recommend spending a lot of time with a physical impairment as a way to gain new insights, but if life brings a disability our way we might as well learn from it. For the majority of folks who have never dealt with a disability, there are other ways to learn. One avenue is to read Cass Irvin's excellent book Home Bound, Growing Up with a Disability in America. I commend this book to you; an encounter with it may cause the scales to fall from your eyes as you see the world in a new way.

Home Bound is a personal memoir shot through with 20th century culture and history -- especially Irvin's insights about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is also a call to concern and an appeal for justice and advocacy.

Louisvillian Irvin, a gifted writer, contracted polio in 1954 while she was at Girl Scout camp. She was nine years old. In the years that followed she spent long periods at Warm Springs, Georgia, for therapy. Though the spirit of Roosevelt loomed large in Warm Springs, it was a future president, John F. Kennedy, whom Irvin encountered there in the flesh. She was photographed with him during a campaign stop while he was still Sen. Kennedy from Massachusetts.

Barriers in life come in many forms

As a child Irvin spent time in an iron lung. Leg braces, back braces, hand braces and torso braces -- all of which were clunking barriers to a teenager's dating hopes -- were a portion of her world when she was in high school. Strangely misdirected therapy was a part of life as well; standing silent and erect for long periods of time while heavily braced and propped up on crutches, rather like a camera tripod, was supposedly a good thing.

For someone in a wheelchair the barriers in life can come in the form of high curbs without cuts, or door sills that are built tall enough to act as floodwalls against any standing water that might collect on the nearby sidewalk, or stairs without corresponding ramps. Other barriers are people. Sometimes those people even think of themselves as being helpful or enlightened when they are, in truth, toxic.

Preparing to be a teacher, Irvin had attended Kentucky Southern College. It opened a year before she enrolled and closed a year after she graduated. The campus was new and physically accessible. The faculty was filled with personally accessible folks, and the curriculum was innovative. Irvin geared up for a career as a teacher.

Handicapped denied an 'A'

Public schools in Louisville didn't allow people in wheelchairs to do student teaching, something Irvin needed to fulfill as a requirement. She did, at long last, secure a place in a Catholic School. She performed well in the classroom. Her supervising teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, was one of those people who can simultaneously be proper and lacerating. At the end of student teaching, with nine hours of academic work at stake, she started her evaluation of Irvin, who recalls the conversation:

"...I'm having a difficult time deciding between two grades," she went on. "I don't know whether to give you an A or a B." I breathed a sigh of relief. This was nine hours of college credit -- I had been afraid she was torn between a B and a C, and I could not afford a C. "To me," she continued, "an A is for perfection and you, after all, are handicapped. So I feel obliged to give you a B."

I had not expected an A, but I was shocked at her reasoning. And I was angry. I talked to the head of the Education Department at my college, who, ironically, was my uncle and hard of hearing -- but he said the decision was hers. There was nothing he could do about it.

When I read this passage I stopped breathing for an instant. My shocked anger caught me short, and this was not the only episode in the book that affected me so suddenly and deeply.

Cass Irvin has still more to impart in Home Bound. She illumines family life, relationships, combat stories of advocacy and narratives of the lives of other folks affected by the disability advocacy movement. In Cass Irvin's resolute pursuit of a meaningful and independent life -- despite the countervailing forces that abound in American culture -- she gives us humor, realism and abiding hope. Read this book. Please. And may the scales fall from your eyes!


This story was posted on 2011-01-09 06:25:56
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