Disabilities Don’t Have to be Handicaps

In my neighborhood growing up, there lived a man in an iron lung. He was the victim of polio. His caregivers had positioned his iron lung in front of a large window so the man could look at the outside world. But that also meant that the outside world could look in upon him. And I did, every time we passed his house. I often thought about what it must be like to live like that—a captive to a large metal contraption. But I also thought about what it would be like to take care of someone like that. Neither had much appeal.

Our family had a tradition when I was young. We watched The Miracle Worker[i] every time it came on TV. At first, I thought the movie was about Hellen Keller. But as I watched it year after year, I soon realized the film was more about Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher. While the dramatic apex of the movie is when it finally clicks in Helen’s head that things have names, this scene was always my favorite:

Anne Sullivan knew the best thing she could do for Helen was to teach her to be her best self within the limits of her disability. Although Helen was blind and deaf, she could still learn how to behave. And so, the disabled and the caregiver became a team. Working together, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan achieved miracles.

This scene from the film Ray[ii] forcefully teaches a similar lesson—the best thing a teacher or caregiver can do is to help the disabled person learn to do as much as possible without help:

But being a caregiver for the disabled is not a bed of roses. Patience often runs thin. There is the longing to do something—anything—other than care for the disabled ward. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,[iii] Gilbert (played by Johnny Depp) has to care for his overweight mother, who hasn’t left the couch in their living room for years, and his little brother, who is mentally challenged (played by a young Leo DiCaprio). In this scene, Gilbert finally can’t take it anymore:

I am sure Gilbert’s feelings, if not his actions, are common among caregivers. Most avoid hitting their charges, but often, like the Southwest Airlines commercial, they “want to get away.”

But similar to Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, when caregivers and the disabled work together, the results can be extraordinary.

The rehabilitation of Alex Smith is one of those stories. Smith was a star quarterback at the University of Utah (my alma mater) and drafted first overall by the San Francisco Forty-niners. After a couple of trades, he was the starting quarterback for the Washington football team. On November 18, 2018, he suffered a compound spiral fracture—a break of his fibula and tibia from his ankle to his knee. Doctors put his leg back together with three plates and 28 pins and screws, but the open wound became infected with necrotizing fasciitis or flesh-eating bacteria. At Alex’s request, his doctors did everything they could to save his leg. He underwent eight operations in ten days.

But that was just the beginning.

With the Pentagon’s permission, Smith began his rehab at the Center for the Intrepid—a military rehabilitation facility specifically designed to help wounded warriors with injuries similar to Smith’s. The Center has helped hundreds of soldiers with lower leg injuries, most from blasts from land mines. The Center for the Intrepid has helped soldiers run again, with most returning to duty with their units.

The key to the center’s success? It has been the ability to instill in their patients an attitude of accomplishing anything there.

At age 36, after 17 surgeries and being away from the game for twenty months, doctors cleared Alex Smith to play again. Three plays into his first game back, All-pro Aaron Donald sacked Smith.

But Alex got back up.

Joe Alderete, Smith’s rehab doctor, watched that game by satellite while deployed in Iraq. He said, “I was so proud of Alex and all that he had achieved. I was totally blown away. I don’t know whether I wanted to cheer or throw up. It scared me to death. But I just loved watching Alex achieve.” Alex led the Washington football team to a 5-1 record and a playoff spot. His is a story of patients and caregivers achieving miracles—not just for Alex but the thousands of soldiers the Center for the Intrepid has helped.

The role of many caregivers is not as dramatic as what Joe Alderete and his staff did for Alex Smith. The film CODA[iv] was the darling of the most recent Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience and Jury awards. Apple TV shelled out $25 million to buy the rights to the movie—a record at any film festival. It was money well spent. In the movie, Ruby Rossi is the only hearing member of her family or a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). As such, Ruby’s role in the family is to act as the speaking voice and interpreter of the family, particularly in connection with their fishing business. These were relatively easy tasks compared to what many caregivers face when caring for people with disabilities.

But Ruby has her own dreams her family does not understand until they attend a high school choir concert, and this happens:

Ruby’s father sees, but more importantly, feels the emotions Ruby’s voice raises in others. And because of his love for his daughter, he is willing to free her to pursue her dreams even at a high personal cost to himself.  

I salute caregivers everywhere and those in their care who have been able to experience miracles. I especially honor those caregivers who are nonprofessionals but help their loved ones out of love. In these difficult times, I hope each of us can take care of ourselves and someone else if we can.


[i] The Miracle Worker:

  • Production Company: PlayFilm Productions
  • Director: Arthur Penn
  • Screenwriter: William Gibson (based on the book, “The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller)
  • Starring: Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke and Victor Jory
  • Release date: July 28, 1962

[ii] Ray:

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Bristol Bay Productions, and Anvil Films
  • Director: Taylor Hackford
  • Screenwriters: Taylor Hackford and James L. White
  • Starring: Jamie Fox, Regina King, and Kerry Wasshington
  • Release date: Ocotber 29, 2004

[iii] What’s Eating Gilbert Grape:

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures
  • Director: Lasse Hallström
  • Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
  • Starring: Johnny Depp Leonardo DiCaprio, and Juliette Lewis
  • Release date: March 4, 1994

[iv] CODA:

  • Production Companies: Vendome Pictures, Pathé Films, and Picture Perfect Federation
  • Director: Sian Heder
  • Screenwriters: Sian Heder, Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg
  • Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur
  • Release date: August 13, 2021

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