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By Daniel J. Vance

One of my good friends enjoys invigorating one-on-one discussions. And he likes leading small group talks as well as presenting his well thought out ideas to large gatherings. For instance, not long ago he was at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore presenting to a critical group of scholars in his area of specialty.

“Tony” (not his real name) has nearly completed another Masters degree, this one in English literature, and will earn a PhD because he wants to teach his specialty as a full-time college professor. He already has been an adjunct college instructor. For many years, he served as a pastor.

He is bright and articulates his positions well.

Yet when beginning conversations with him, sometimes strangers can't get past all the visual distractions, such as all his gleaming metal, moving wheels, electrical gadgetry, reading table, and the ever-present water bottle with plastic straw to keep him hydrated. That's because Tony is a quadriplegic and uses an electric wheelchair.

About eight years ago he had an automobile accident on slippery ice that caused his paralysis from the chest down.

I have watched strangers start conversations with Tony. It sometimes seems they haven't a clue what words to say or how to begin saying them, hemming and hawing and looking down at their feet, as if they had never before met another human being.

Tony works especially hard trying to put these uncomfortable people at ease. I admire him for that. With children he does it really well. Yet it must tire him at some level to regularly have to perform and re-perform this act for the benefit of others. And in doing so he usually must answer the question strangers always want to know but often are afraid to ask.

Why are you in that wheelchair?

He goes on without missing a beat to explain everything. And they listen, as if that one pivotal event and his disability fully define him and are the only interesting things he could talk about.

Yet Tony can speak authoritatively on many subjects, remember? He can talk about his children, marriage, politics, even English literature.

When first meeting a person with an obvious disability, most Americans for whatever reason aren't able to see past the wheelchair. Or the cerebral palsy. Or the white cane. Or the missing leg.

Next time, try seeing past it.

For more, see danieljvance.com [This column made possible by a grant from Blue Valley Sod, www.bluevalleysod.com]