Aging with quadriplegia may be filled with extra challenges, but it doesn’t demoralize me. With God’s help, I hold everything lightly. I try not to grasp at my fragile life, nor coddle it or minimize my activities at Joni and Friends just because I’m getting older, growing weaker, and dealing with more pain. Rather, I find great comfort and joy in dying to self and living every day to serve the Lord Jesus and others around the world whose disabilities are far more profound than mine.
I sometimes wonder, Who am I, God, that you have brought me this far? Lately, I’ve been whispering that question from 1 Chronicles 17:16: “Then King David [said], “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” Who am I to enjoy a platform on national radio for 40 years? Who am I that I should be so blessed in marriage to Ken for 40 years? And how did I ever have the strength to survive 55 years as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair?
The truth is, I don’t have the strength. I still wake up every morning needing God desperately. Like David, I often confess, “I am poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17). Perhaps that’s how God brought me this far. I cannot say, but I do know that “the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9, NIV). God is searching high and low for weak people who love him so that he can pour into them his strength. Maybe that’s my story, but how I arrived here is not for me to say. I just keep praising my sovereign God with every milestone I pass.
It’s the noble cause of Christ to which I’ve dedicated myself for decades, and I can’t think of anything that gives me more joy. Yet as I reach the milestone of 55 years of quadriplegia—not to mention two bouts of cancer, severe breathing issues, COVID-19, and chronic pain—I hold tightly to Acts 20:24 (NIV): “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
And with this anniversary marking 55 years in my wheelchair, I’m reflecting on more than a few milestones through which God has done amazing things.
Anniversary of the Disabilities Act
When a broken neck upended my life 55 years ago, leaving me depressed and devastated, the last people I wanted to be around were wheelchair users like me. They made me feel awkward, so I basically ignored anyone with a disabling condition. Imagine my amazement when a little over a decade later, God used my own affliction to birth an international disability ministry. Somewhere within that decade, I rose above my fears of the future and my disdain for others with disabilities. God transformed my heart, changed my attitude, and showed me there are more important things in life than walking.
I landed in a wheelchair at a time when there was very little access for people using mobility equipment. Back in the 1970s I would arrive at a restaurant, only to be told to wheel down an alley, past smelly dumpsters, into a side door that led through a crowded, noisy kitchen in order to reach my dining table.
I remember getting stuck in a boutique dressing room while trying on clothes. My wheelchair had become wedged tightly between the swinging door and the wall; the store manager had to come and jerk me free. My wheelchair left scuff marks all over the dressing room. I was terribly embarrassed. That was the way things were in the early 70s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
With each passing year, I racked up more embarrassing incidents of being stranded, getting stuck, and navigating long, winding detours to get into movie theaters, restaurants, churches, and stores. I finally had my fill of embarrassing episodes, so I began to actively advocate for myself and for others with disabilities.
In the late 1980s, I somehow landed a position on the National Council on Disability under President Reagan.