DISABILITIES WEEK 97
By Daniel J. Vance
On the night of August 11, 1979, a drunk driver ran a stop sign near Pelican Rapids, Minn., and broadsided a vehicle with Judy Siegle inside. Two teens in the drunk driver's car died and Judy broke her neck while being thrown from the car.
As an "incomplete" quadriplegic, Siegle (pronounced Seeg-lee) had paralysis in both legs and partial paralysis in her arms. "I remember thinking that my family and I would meet this challenge as we had other challenges," said Siegle of Fargo, North Dakota, after speaking at a recent Joni and Friends Family Retreat for families affected by disability. "I could still go on to college, even in a wheelchair."
Over time, not all went well emotionally. "My struggles came out in restless nights and nightmares," she said. "There was one day in particular when reality hit and I broke down crying. I realized there would be times when I would feel hurt and frustrated. I learned to share those feelings with a support system and through prayer to deal with those emotions going on inside."
At Concordia College in nearby Morehead, Minnesota, she leaned on her campus pastor for support. In 1984, she graduated from Concordia with a bachelor's degree in speech and communication and three years later from the Univ. of Minnesota with a master's degree in social work. From 1988-2000, Siegle was a social worker in psychiatric and rehabilitation units at MeritCare Health Systems of Fargo and today works for it as a "community disability specialist." She is also a highly sought-after motivational speaker.
Though badly injured, she did not give up on her athletic goals and dreams. "Sports was a big part of my life growing up," she said. "I was all-state in basketball [in Minnesota when the accident happened] and had been looking forward to playing college ball that fall."
She began competitive wheelchair racing and now holds the U.S. record in 400-, 800-, 1500- and 5000-meter events for quadriplegic women. She competed at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000). At the Mexico City ParaPanAm Games in 1999, she won two gold medals.
This August marks 25 years since her life-changing accident. Does she have advice for others facing similar challenges?
"We choose how we will respond to what comes our way," she said. "We can become bitter or we can become better."