Willing to be visible in a crowd of people who I don’t know and who don’t know me is easy; being visible in a large group of people who I know and who know me is another matter entirely. The fourth lecture week did not begin like another run of the mill lecture week. Staff and students were pulling together in final preparations for the South Australian Preaching School. Within a matter of hours, 90 church leaders and apprentices would be arriving at the College for two days of teaching from an international speaker. I wasn’t part of the organisation team. I had my head down in work, trying to finish off preparations for a mid-morning meeting that promised to be gruelling and time consuming. About four weeks earlier though, I was asked to be on a panel for the conference to talk about preaching Old Testament narrative. Since I knew that the chair of the panel was someone I could trust implicitly not to land me in hot water with a topic that could be quite contentious, I agreed to be part of the three person panel, which included the international speaker. The thought didn’t occur to me that the challenge of being visible before 90 church leaders and apprentices was going to be a problem.
The Monday morning of the preaching school, I realised that I had put myself in a much more difficult position that I had anticipated. When participants started to arrive, when I was meeting and greeting people as they were coming in, I realised that this was the first time that the majority of attendees would have seen me operate within my new normal. And I became very self-conscious. Too self-conscious. Before all this happened, I wouldn’t have thought twice about speaking in front of a crowd of 90. I used to love meeting new people and catching up with old acquaintances, although slightly shy at times. But suddenly, I was struggling with the urge to hide myself in my office. But I knew I couldn’t hide. At some point, I needed to face people and let others catch up with getting used to my new normal. So with the usual smile on my face, I tried my best to stay and to say hello to those arriving.
The panel was scheduled before lunch. I had just finished my meeting and rushed to the conference room. The key speaker was running over time, so I had a bit of space to breathe. Going straight from the meeting to the panel discussion would have been better; I wouldn’t have had time to think. While I was waiting at the back, I realised that everyone will be seated, facing the front, while the transition happened between the key speaker and the panel. Walking to the front, with a walking stick, with all eyes watching was not something I was ready for yet. Thankfully though, participants were encouraged to get up and move between the two sessions. There was some movement, but just not enough. Then sitting on the platform, I had to keep my walking stick by me, there was nowhere to put it. I tried to tuck it away inconspicuously, but for someone who has a tendency to speak too much with their hands, still having the cord in hand was a little bit too clumsy. My heightened self-awareness from the beginning didn’t help me. For the first time ever, I felt awkward at the front. I wasn’t ready yet to speak publicly at events. But this dawning thought was too late for that day. The panel started and all my energy was spent trying to focus upon the question the chair of the panel was asking. Unfortunately, the person chairing the panel had changed. There was no heads up about what was going to asked. The first question was the hot button issue that I wished to avoid; I knew I was going to contradict not only the other invited panelist, but the key speaker as well. And the inevitable happened. My turn eventually came. If I wasn’t feeling more uncomfortable with every passing minute of that panel, the ending sealed it. The chair closed the discussion and the other panelist jumped up lithely and made a beeline for his seat. All I could do was remain seated. I couldn’t move, I had been sitting for too long. I needed assistance getting up from my seat, getting down from the platform, and I really didn’t want to make a solitary walk down the aisle. Thankfully though, the key speaker remained seated beside me and the chair was breaking the conference for lunch. I managed, at least, to get down from the platform without drawing attention to myself. Relief broke over me, the panel was over.
Thinking about the challenges of my new normal, I never anticipated that getting up to speak in front of a group would be a hurdle that I would need to overcome. Being in a room full of people who have known me previously, but who haven’t seen me since that day I woke up with my foot drop and unable to walk properly, strikes fear in me. I don’t care anymore about people starring. I care though about being cornered and asked questions about what happened. My fear is that my disability now defines me in the eyes of others. I never appreciated before the courage living life in public takes for people with disabilities. I understand now. It’s the courage to be visible. Not to shy away, hide, and disappear from view. It’s the audacity to do life in public view, unapologetically, purposefully, while keeping your head up and moving forward.