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You know, sometimes we may feel like there are too many special holidays and remembrances. Fiddler’s Month, Eastern Crab Day, National Day of Curtains, etc. And it can be really easy to make light of all those seemingly extraneous remembrances.
However, sometimes we pick a real winner. July is Disability Awareness Month. This annual recognition was declared by Ronald Reagan in 1987. It pushes us to take time to consider the extraordinary contributions to our society made by those who already had to work harder just to achieve as much as a fully able person.
One such person I think that we should take time to consider is Ms. Evelyn Anderson of Greensboro, Alabama. Born in August of 1926, she had four years of being fully able bodied. At 4 years old, she was struck in the spine by a stray .22 bullet.
This bullet severed her backbone, causing her to immediately become a paraplegic. She never developed below the waist because of this.
It being the early 20th century, there weren’t a lot of medical items around for getting around. She traveled via gurney, a rolling table. She had to lie prone the majority of the time, or lay propped up on her arm. She was never able to walk, stand, or even sit after this accident.
She was an extraordinarily motivated person. In 1948 she graduated from Judson College with honors, obtaining degrees in both art and history. She was intent on becoming a teacher, despite it actually being illegal at the time for her to do so.
She rallied her representatives and inspired them to change this law in 1953. In 1954, she became the first “seriously disabled person” to be hired by an Alabama public school. She was initially an art teacher at Greensboro High School, later teaching English and Spanish, as well.
She didn’t stop there, either. In 1964 she graduated from the University of Alabama with a master’s degree in education in counseling. This enabled her to become Greensboro High School’s guidance counselor.
I’ll remind you, she accomplished all of this without the ability to move anything below where that .22 bullet severed her spinal cord.
I’m nearly speaking literally when I tell you she paved the way for the state of Alabama to embrace disability rights. The City of Greensboro actually adopted mobility accommodation before the state even got around to mandating it.
Her life as an advocate blossomed throughout her teaching career. In 1977 she served on Alabama Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. She retired in 1982 after teaching at Greensboro County High School for 34 years.
During her time as a teacher, she won numerous awards, including Outstanding Educator in 1974, Alabama’s Outstanding Counselor of the Year for 1975-76, the 1977 Judson College Alumnae Achievement Award, and the Alabama Handicapped Professional Woman of the Year in 1977. Following her retirement from teaching, she volunteered her time, serving as a key figure in the city of Greensboro. She died in 1998.
Disability awareness is not about helping the disabled keep up with us. Disability awareness is about recognizing the challenges given to our equals, challenges that are made easier with the simplest of accommodations that have a minimal impact on everyone else.
If Evelyn Anderson is able to live a life beyond anything most of us will achieve, what could we do to raise up our brothers and sisters? Not everyone will be able to strive to meet Ms. Anderson’s accomplishments.
The point is not for us to pretend that everyone has an equal physical chance. The point is simply for us to see the ability in everyone. Look past what’s different and truly see your neighbors. And if you’re ever unsure of where to go from there, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before:
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.