What is a physical disability?
I have more than a significant hearing loss, but I think my wife Joyce has the physical disability—she hears everything. I admit, however, that my hearing challenge can be a bit taxing for those who are trying to communicate with me. I’m sorry about that, but my so-called physical disability has huge upsides—like no noise keeps me awake at night, and I don’t catch more than a fraction of the dialogue in most movies. With what’s out there now, that’s a blessing.
My mother passed her hearing loss on to me as did her mother to her. And my mother taught me how to recognize the challenge and refocus my efforts into something that doesn’t require hearing. Her deafness brought her to the typewriter and later the computer where she wrote letters, thank you notes, greeting cards, expressions of sympathy, and whatever she thought would make someone feel better. If she knew you (or sometimes just heard about you), from time to time you would get something to brighten your day. For missionaries, that cheer came at least monthly; for her children and grandchildren—well, you could make a book of her constant expressions of love and tender counsel. Perhaps most important, my mother encouraged me to see the literal blessing that someone’s so-called disability can be for them and for those around them.
Back in the late 90’s I was serving as stake president and one of our bishops asked me to go with him to meet Michelle Morris. Michelle was investigating the Church and was a very unique woman. Middle-aged then, she was a published author with a hopper full of experiences including, for a time, being a Roman Catholic nun and an ardent member of NOW (National Organization for Women). When I met her, she was the caretaker of about a dozen children who were all cerebral palsy victims. Many lived in her home and most were confined to wheelchairs and could only communicate via computers attached to their chairs. As a single woman, Michelle had legally adopted four of them.
So right off the bat, I was impressed with Michelle Morris. But how did she feel about the Church? That question got answered without me asking. She raved on about the sessions of general conference she just watched and said she had never felt the Spirit like that before. I asked how she was introduced to the Church. With a big smile, she answered,“Kerri Adamic.” Kerri, a member of the Church, taught cerebral palsy children. That’s how Michelle met her. They became fast friends, and Kerri introduced her to the gospel by sharing her feelings about the church that she had painstakingly written in her journal over the years. Michelle was touched by what she read and accepted Kerri’s invitation to have the missionaries teach her.
I say painstakingly written, because Kerri was a cerebral palsy victim herself. She was in her early thirties when Michelle came to know her and had been wheelchair bound since a child. Because of her physical disability, she communicated using a computer voice synthesizer (think Stephen Hawking) and laboriously punching out her messages and talks and journal entries with her left index finger one letter or word or phrase at a time on her computer. Check out this brief video to see Kerri in action. Pretty amazing, huh?
In June of 1998, Michelle was baptized. On the front row were five wheelchairs. Four were occupied by her adopted cerebral palsy children, and the fifth by Kerri. Kerri was also the main speaker. Who knows how many hours it took her to peck out on her computer that insightful and Spirit-laden ten-minute talk. A sister in the ward read it, while Kerri sat in her wheelchair in front of the congregation smiling down at us. Not a dry-eye event.
Two months later, two of Michelle’s cerebral palsy children were baptized. This time Kerri gave the invocation using her voice synthesizer, and two other cerebral palsy children bore their testimonies. Three elders were in the font to assist in the baptisms. My son, Ben, was at this baptism with his girl friend, Judy Lara. Judy was a wonderful young woman . . . and not a member of the Church. She had taken missionary lessons, attended church several times, and had tentatively decided she would be baptized. But there was significant hesitancy. As she attended this baptism and the subsequent poignant confirmations the next day at sacrament meeting, her heart was changed. My cerebral palsy friends brought the Spirit, and that Spirit bore testimony to Judy’s soul. That afternoon in our living room, she and I had a wonderful father-daughter kind of talk. As we concluded, she asked if I would baptize and confirm her. That was a temple marriage and two beautiful children ago.
Michelle later married, was sealed in the temple, and her adopted cerebral palsy children were sealed to her and her husband. I was there. And Kerri, who made this possible, was there too.
Kerri, like my mother, chose to turn her physical disability into an immeasurable blessing. For her and for Michelle and for me and for our families.
Thank you, Kerri Adamic. I love you.