I have a wonderful cousin, Randy Manley (yes, he does have one of the best names of all time) who has started a new charitable foundation, the Make It Real Foundation. As a businessman, he supports the idea of giving financial assistance to enterprising individuals in this country or outside of it. His first area of focus will be in Appalachia, where his foundation will partner with The Appalachian Media Institute to sponsor student interns, helping them to develop their skills as filmmakers and giving them alternatives to working in the coal mines.
He's just gotten started, so this is his first project. It will be exciting to see where his efforts take him and his recipients. My husband, Richard, and I attended his kick-off dinner last January, where he and his partner described their vision and what they hoped to do. At that time, they were still exploring ideas and soliciting feedback from the attendees. And one of the things they did, to give us an idea of the kind of projects they were inspired by, was to show a short documentary produced by the Wheelchair Foundation. Their mission is to provide a wheelchair to every man, woman, and child in the world who needs one but can't afford one.
My associations with wheelchairs have always been tinged with pain, as it happens. My father broke his back in a freak accident when I was five. His fall severed his spinal cord, which meant that he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His accident took place in the late fifties, which was long before disabled veterans began returning home from Vietnam, and long before any kind of disabled activism began to take place in this country.
This meant that there were no handicapped accessible public restrooms or telephones, no ramps on curbs to sidewalks, no handicapped accessible parking spaces, no mandated provisions for access to second floors. Back then, a man in a wheelchair was such an exotic sight that often, when our family would go out to eat and enter the restaurant, diners would literally turn around in their seats and stare at us. Once, at an outdoor musical, a disturbed little boy found out that my dad couldn't chase after him, so he spent the evening running up to my dad and hitting him. Our home was a two-story home, so my dad laboriously pulled himself up the stairs to bed every night and bumped down them every morning.
Because there were so many places my dad couldn't go, I began to associate his wheelchair with his disability. And I could hardly bear it. It was so painful to see what a struggle his life was-getting in and out of cars, for example-even though he was a remarkable man and determined not to let his disability slow him down. He and my mom owned and operated their own small business, he was active in his church, and a strong and impassioned community leader, too. We took a two-week family vacation every year, my dad driving, using his hands instead of his feet with special modifications made to our cars. But still, to me, the wheelchair remained a symbol of what you couldn't do. He couldn't, for example, go up to see the hexagonal writing studio I built on the side of our hill back in the eighties.
The film that the Wheelchair Foundation put together started out showing footage of people in the Third World who couldn't walk but had no wheelchair. They either stayed in bed or were carried by family members, or they dragged their lifeless legs behind them. People are amazingly resourceful, so these individuals came up with all kinds of creative ways to gain some kind of mobility, but it was hard. Agonizing, in fact.
Then the film moved on to footage of these same people getting a wheelchair. It quickly became clear that a wheelchair completely opened up their world. People who had been bedridden could go outside for the first time since they lost their ability to walk, possibly ever. Family members were released of the burden of having to carry their loved one. Those who had been dragging themselves around, maybe on a piece of cardboard or a rigged up dolly, could now get around easily. And the joy on their faces was one of the most moving things I have ever experienced. I was so touched by these people's happiness, I had tears streaming down my cheeks by the end of the film. That was a little embarrassing, but the reversal in my thinking was so profound I didn't care. For the first time in my life I realized what a gift a wheelchair can be. And that, instead of representing helplessness, it represented freedom and independence.
So, thank you, cuz! Your efforts have already made an enormous difference in my life.