A Lesson in Adaptability


How many times have I watched an individual whom I consider “handicapped” or “disadvantaged” do an ordinary task that I do every day and think, “I could never have accomplished that”? I know I can’t count the number.

Evidently, sightless people can live alone, play the piano, learn to wire acoustic devices, and practice law. Deaf people successfully fill important roles in all aspects of society. Helen Keller, both blind and deaf, refused to let circumstances limit her life.

Other people suffer from any number of physical and intellectual differences that daunt me. I think about this phenomenon amidst the world’s plethora of angst, anger, depression, mental illness, homelessness, mass shootings, political turmoil, ideological feuding, and just plain old meanness. Everywhere I look, I see despair and desperation.

Why do so many people sink into the abyss of hopelessness while others face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and face them head-on with determination? I think the answer lies somewhere in the essence of a person’s soul, ego, psyche, personality, genetics, and personal history. No one can explain a clear or single answer as far as I can discern.

In 2007, I worked at the Abilene Reporter-News as the NIE (Newspapers in Education) director. At that time, Scripps still owned our local paper which meant that the Reporter-News hosted the area Scripps Spelling Bee. My position afforded me the opportunity to organize and direct the spelling bee which included children from any of our local school and home-schooled students in grades five through eight.

Matthew Phillips

That particular year, a Wylie fifth-grade student named Matthew Phillips won the bee. Other than being in the youngest eligibility group, Matt had another distinguishing characteristic. Born with brittle bone disease, Matt had experienced many physical and social difficulties during his short life, which sadly ended at the age of sixteen in 2012. When I read his obituary, I immediately recognized the young boy I had met and admired in 2007. 

His parents wrote in his obituary, “Despite more than a dozen major surgeries, countless fractures and sprains, and an entire summer in bed with a back infection, Matt refused to let life dictate terms to him. He took each day as a gift and felt his personal mission was to make the day enjoyable for himself and others. He blessed more lives in sixteen years than most people do in eighty, and he will be warmly remembered and deeply missed” (Hamil Family Funeral Home).

Another inspirational person, Joni Eareckson Tada, is an American painter, writer, and inspirational speaker. Tada lived an average life until the age of seventeen when she dove into shallow water and suffered a fracture between her fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, leaving her permanently paralyzed from the shoulders down.

In spite of anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts, Tada persisted in her therapy, learning to paint by holding a brush between her teeth. She has written many books, mostly with the aid of sound recognition software. She and her husband married in 1982 and have experienced a forty-year marriage during which time she has dealt with two bouts of cancer.

Joni Eareckson Tada

I would like to ask her several questions: “How did you persevere? Why didn’t you give up? Why did you bother with cancer treatment when you could have ended this life?” Her answers most likely would suggest her desire to inspire and facilitate help for others who suffer from disabilities. She works with a long list of non-profit organizations that encourage people to embrace the lives they have rather than the lives they have lost or never received in the first place. 

Though Mo Farah has no physical disability, he does suffer from a horrendous history that has caused him shame and fear. After his father died in the wars in Somalia and he became separated from his mother, a British woman smuggled him into the UK where she kept him as a housecleaner and nanny for her children. Mo (Mohammed) was a young child at the time.

When he discovered later that the British woman had given him the name of another child who was booked on his plane from Somalia to Britain, his British “mistress” tore up his papers and threatened him with deportation.

Most victims of human trafficking who survive their circumstances try to keep a low profile for fear of legal consequences of their pasts. Mo not only survived his captivity but went on to become a successful runner, winning four Olympic gold medals for England. Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 2017.

Mo Farah

These three examples represent a tiny number of people who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a successful life. Among them are people born with physical or mental impairments, people injured in accidents or similar circumstances that result in impairments, and military staff who suffer extreme physical or mental injuries they incurred while serving our country.

With good cause, some of these people succomb to depression and live out their lives in misery.  Others, challenging their circumstances, determine to overcome or compensate for their impairments. They possess an innate drive or steadfastness to do what circumstances dare them to do. 

When my own life’s circumstances overwhelm me, I can find inspiration by realizing just how much people can do when they dare to defy seemingly insurmountable situations. 

Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing


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