Wheelchair Wisdom: A Vision of Freedom

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." -- Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

What all of us really desire, I believe, is freedom. Before we begin, I want to be clear about what I mean by freedom. Ironic though it seems, I turn to a woman in a wheelchair and prisoners who are serving life sentences to remind me of the real meaning of that word.

The woman in the wheelchair was Joni Eareckson Tada, who had a diving accident in 1967 at age seventeen that left her quadriplegic. In 1994, Joni, working from her home in Agoura Hills, California, embarked on a mission to recover damaged wheelchairs, refurbish them, and then send them to people who were handicapped in other countries who were in desperate need, but without any means of buying their own wheelchairs. Each wheelchair was custom fitted and sent along with training manuals and upkeep instructions.

Joni called the program Wheels for the World. As she worked with an extensive network of volunteers in her faith-based group, Joni's vision caught on. The program grew by leaps and bounds and after the first 11 years of its existence, Wheels for the World had more than 550 volunteers throughout the United States and since 1994 had shipped more than 27,000 refurbished wheelchairs to nations around the world.

But the mission, and the vision, did not end there. "Joni and Friends" (as she calls her group) got in touch with a number of prison wardens. Would it be possible, they wondered, to set up a program in correctional facilities where some of the prisoners could help out with the wheelchair-rehabilitation program? Many prisons already had active workshop programs, employing skilled and unskilled inmates who worked regular hours for small stipends (only a few cents an hour). Why not teach some lifers the skills needed to disassemble, repair, and rebuild the chairs that were shipped to them by Wheels for the World? I was inspired.

A number of wardens liked the idea and signed on to participate in the program. Many inmates volunteered to work on the wheelchairs, eager for a break in their routines at high security prisons. In stark, cold, heavily guarded metal buildings, these men willingly worked from early morning until nighttime. With wrenches and screwdrivers, they took apart the damaged wheelchairs, lubricated bearings, replaced broken parts, and reassembled them.

Something miraculous materialized out of the depressing prison surroundings after the inmates began working on the wheelchairs. It became clear that their real incentive was far more than their meager pay. Some prisoners were shown photographs of grateful people in their wheelchairs who had regained mobility with wheelchairs from the program. Photographs were also shown to the inmates of those who would be receiving these wheelchairs that they were working on, and what a difference it would make in their lives. For these former death-row inmates (their sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment), giving from their heart took on a new meaning.

Wardens started to hear comments from men who were doomed to death about regaining their humanity and a purpose in their lives. They spoke of changed outlooks, and actually feeling good about themselves because they were truly doing something to help another, and making a huge difference in that other's life.

Many times since hearing these stories, I have wondered about the many paths of desire that lead to freedom. The desire of a woman in a wheelchair, paralyzed for decades, to deliver wheelchairs to handicapped people around the world. The desire of the hundreds of volunteers who contribute their time and efforts to the program. The desire of those prison wardens who understand that all most criminals know how to do is take, and this gives them a chance to learn how it feels to give something back instead. And the desire of the prisoners themselves -- doing time for the most serious crimes and feeling hopeless and doomed -- to wake up every morning knowing that they have a job to do... to serve a mission that is greater than themselves.

This is what I mean by overcoming the "minutiae" of our lives. As a quadriplegic, Joni Earackson Tada has numerous daily challenges that must seem, at times, all-consuming. Each of the volunteers who assist Wheels for the World has, I'm sure, family obligations, household chores, financial commitments that could easily fill every moment of their waking hours. The prisoners who refurbish the wheelchairs will remain prisoners; none are necessarily promised a lighter sentence, or more leniency, or greater privileges, for helping with the wheelchair refurbishment. Yet all these people wake up, each morning, to a shared task and an over-arching mission that helps satisfy their desire to serve a larger purpose.

Like the prisoners who enable others to be free, each of us has the power to experience a transformation that results in our own freedom. Freedom is an attitude or state of mind -- a choice.

Freedom, like interdependence, comes in many different forms, and it is different for everyone. For almost everyone, it is a balancing act between accepting what one cannot change while striving to make the best of the current situation.

Several years ago, my husband, Michael, and I sponsored an exhibit at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia honoring "Exceptional Americans Who Have Achieved Remarkable Success" (later renamed "Inspiration"). I am featured in this exhibit, along with others like Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve, Stevie Wonder, Barbara Jordan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Michael J. Fox, and Helen Keller. I was inspired to design this exhibit because those featured are people who rose above our circumstances and our "perceived" limitations.

We took a stand for what we believed in that would impact the lives of others in positive and constructive ways. Like the handful of young rebels who founded our country, we stepped beyond our challenges and chose to explore, invent, and take a stand for a better way against all odds.

What does freedom mean? To me, it means taking a stand for your life. Freedom is an inner dialogue that gives voice and permission to speak out for what we believe and do what we believe is right. Freedom echoes our Founding Fathers. Freedom is enjoying life's simple pleasures, such as experiencing nature's wonders, discovering the possibility of an all-terrain wheelchair, or "walking" in a motorized scooter down city streets, in crowds, at political rallies, in art museums, or in shopping malls and farmers markets.

So what does freedom mean to you? Is it living in America with all its rights and opportunities? Is it inner liberation from fear, doubt, anger, pride, disappointment or self-obsession? Is freedom the sum of a thousand daily liberties we take for granted -- changing our mind, watching the stock market, saying "yes," breathing fresh air, saying "no," enrolling in a course, exercising our vote? Half of the world has no idea what it means to have a choice. It is our responsibility to stay conscious of how fortunate we are. Freedom is an attitude or state of mind... and always a matter of choice. And it is the choices that we make in our lives that produce the breadth of our freedom.

Exercise: Now it's your turn. Take a minute to think about these questions:

  • Do you long for freedom? Do you feel it takes too long? Why?

  • List three areas in your life where you long for freedom.
  • Take a small action step this week in each of these areas and see what happens.
  • There are always plenty of reasons not to do this. Try it out.
  • Celebrate your freedom and enjoy the change of the season,


    I would I would love to hear from you so please do leave a comment below; or drop me an email at lnobletopf@comcast.net; or visit my Facebook fan page: www.facebook.com/WheelchairWisdom

    Contact Linda for practical spiritual counseling, and transform adversity into a spiritual awakening. Visit www.wheelchairwisdom.com for more information.

    To book Linda for a speaking engagement, please contact BigSpeak at 805-965-1400.

    If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life around illness or any adversity and apply a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please find Linda's book, You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge on Amazon.com.

    Linda Noble Topf is author of You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Wheelchair Wisdom: Awaken Your Spirit Through Adversity, will be published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler & iUniverse.