A diagnosis of cerebral palsy, a neurological condition affecting posture, movement and muscle tension would be a challenge for any new parents to hear about me, their prematurely born daughter. This would be especially so, during missionary service in South India in the early 1950’s. All sorts of questions would be raised. What would the future hold? A work colleague of my parents glimpsed possibility, naming me “our littlest missionary”. Such was the beginning of an intriguing yet challenging life.
Living in a country town in NSW in my early years gifted me with a growing appreciation of simple things. More specifically, contemplation of nature’s beauty to this day nurtures me when life turns crazy. My caring family embraced me while attending a mainstream infants’ school. Even though I clattered along in cumbersome callipers and full length arm crutches, I enjoyed acceptance and friendship in the school and church environment. My biggest challenge in these few years was coping with loneliness and temporary separation from family while recovering from ankle surgery at the tender age of five.
Later, I again faced major surgery on my hip and knees, spending months in bed in plaster and then rigorous physiotherapy. One of the positive outcomes of this period was the special relationships formed with others who had more severe forms of cerebral palsy than I had.
My high school education unfolded through the Correspondence School while I attended therapy sessions at the Spastic Centre (now Cerebral Palsy Alliance). Teen years are difficult for many. I was no exception. Rebellion, religious questioning and jagged emotional adjustments to the experience of disability reared their heads with ferocious energy. However being nourished by thoughtful, pastoral sermons together with “hanging out” with wonderful friends in a socially conscious Church Youth Group were true godsends at this time.
Tertiary education in Behavioural Sciences coupled with a generous Commonwealth Rehabilitation Scheme which offered driving tuition and vocational training was an opening door to intellectual stimulation and rich friendships.
Being a physically disabled new graduate in a wheelchair was difficult in the highly competitive job market. Eight months of unemployment caused me to spiral into depression. I lost my drive and purpose until I enrolled in a postgraduate diploma in librarianship. A life-giving discovery in this period was the value of bibliotherapy i.e. the art of using prescribed literature to assist in the emotional development of people who experience challenges.
Following this stage of education, I learnt the value of doing voluntary work as a door-opener into paid work. The strategy led me to paid employment as a librarian with the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of Disabled (now National Disability Service). My experience there alerted me to the potential power of lobbying in the realm of disability. I was also ordained as a Uniting Church Minister in 1986 where I saw another source of purpose in ministry.
After some years, I was struck by the experience of the Biblical Moses who was called by God to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. I identified with the hesitant hero who offered lame excuses regarding his incapacities. Challenged by God, despite his limitations, Moses eventually agreed to his mission encouraged by Divine strength and human companionship. Such a story hit me between the eyes and catapulted me into the study and practice of ordained ministry in various places and forms. Chaplaincy with people with intellectual disability, theological librarianship and aged care chaplaincy were the avenues of service, I believe, God called me to serve.
The experience of disability challenges me, but a wicked sense of humour keeps me sane. Being chased in my wheelchair by an inquisitive emu running behind me into the ladies’ loo, for example, tickles my funny bone.
I have been supported by family, friends and a faith in God refined by fire. How has faith sustained me? Within the context of a supportive Christian community, it points me to the reality in my life of the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The teachings and actions of Jesus reflect his compassionate inclusion of “the outsider”. This has been a guiding principle for me in years of ministry. I firmly believe that God is near to the broken-hearted, close to those who suffer. God is also a God of new life, second chances and a beacon of hope. Heart-felt prayer is a means of maintaining connection with this Divine strength in the midst of my limitation.
The Serenity Prayer by Christian thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) has always struck a chord with me.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
How do I ground this prayer?
Having a disability is a reality I cannot control. I cannot change it, but I can change some things which can benefit those around me. My faith encourages me, with all that I have, to leave this world a better place, even in small ways.
Heather Coombes is a retired Uniting Church minister and author of Marathon Wheeler: Living with Physical Disability available on Amazon or www.heathercoombes.com