National Public Radio, December 7, 2005
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National Public Radio

Morning Edition, December 7, 2005

COMMENTARY: Valuing Life, Whether Disabled or Not

by Ben Mattlin 

Commentator Ben Mattlin has been quadriplegic since birth. At the memorial service for a disabled friend who passed away, he came to realize the world needs to expand its definition of what it means to live a successful life, disability or not.


. . . at NPR (about 3 minutes).


          A few years ago, a friend of mine died unexpectedly at 39.  We were volunteer board members at an independent-living center for people with disabilities.  We both used motorized wheelchairs and needed assistance with tasks such as washing, dressing, and eating. But his disability came from a motorcycle accident 14 years earlier. Mine is from birth, the result of a congenital neuromuscular condition.  So I'm used to being quadriplegic.  He wasn't. 

          He would sometimes ask, with startling frankness, "How do you do it?  How do you manage?"  I never knew how to answer.

          One morning  my friend's attendant found him dead--with "a smile on his face," we were told at the packed memorial service.  A young minister explained that  he'd been a "free spirit trapped in an unresponsive body.  Now, that spirit is truly free."  We were told  he'd gone to a place where he could walk again.  His dad added, "Walk?  He's probably playing basketball--in the nude!"

          The words stung.  Mourners need to believe their loved one has gone to a better place.  Yet what was the message here?  Death sets you free--and cures disability.  Was he better off dead than disabled? 

          I realize I'm biased.  I've never ridden a motorcycle or done half the other physical things  my friend  used to love, and had to give up after his injury.  But I do know one can live a pretty full life with a disability.  Indeed, some people find  life after disability  more intense, more deeply appreciated, than it was before.  I've only known one way of being. But my lifelong experience with disability  has made me a creative problem-solver and, ironically perhaps, a diehard optimist--if only because I've had to be. It's taught me a great deal about patience, tolerance and flexibility. My disability is part of who I am.

          Why  couldn't  my friend's family  value the disabled man he'd become?  So many years after his injury, his closest sources of comfort still couldn't  fully embrace his new life.  How limited is this vision of life, and of the afterlife!  Are there no wheelchairs in heaven?

          I'm not buying it.  For me, if there is a heaven, it's not a place where I'll be able to walk. It's a place where it doesn't matter if you can't. 

  Ben Mattlin

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