Daniel J Vance

It was one of those proud father moments, and one of admiration. Our 20-year-old daughter, Abigail, last evening rolled down the chapel main aisle and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

She was the only wheelchair user in a liberal arts college of less than 600 students.

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She uses a manual wheelchair because of spina bifida, which occurred when her spine pre-birth didn’t form like most others and caused permanent paralysis, mainly below her knees. Some people with spina bifida can walk. Others are quadriplegics. Through our experience raising her, my wife and I became more aware of people with disabilities.

A few random thoughts came to mind during and immediately after her graduation. The first was shared by a relative of ours, who thought we should have invited a particular physical therapist from a local hospital to the graduation. Soon after our daughter’s birth, this physical therapist had suggested we commit our daughter to an institution because Abigail would be “mentally retarded” and have so many burdensome physical issues.

A bit late also, I thought post-graduation of inviting the dozens and dozens of people over the years who’ve asked, What’s wrong with your daughter? When asked 20 years ago, I would patiently explain spina bifida and how her particular type would affect her. The last few years, annoyed at the question as worded, I began replying to most questioners, “Nothing is wrong with her.”

The only reason people believe something is “wrong” is because the number of people with spina bifida is so tiny, perhaps only one in 2,000, at best. If most people had it, then people without it likely would be seen as having something “wrong” with them. Spina bifida is so rare nowadays because nearly all people born with it before the 1960s died soon after birth due to hydrocephalus, and the majority of American unborn children with it since about 1990 have been aborted. Pre-birth blood tests usually detect spina bifida.

I also thought post-graduation of inviting all the people who had seen only her wheelchair and had completely missed seeing her mind and heart. It takes someone with a strong spine to stand up under the pressure of always having people eyeing you and also being the only wheelchair user on a college campus of 600. I’m proud of my daughter.

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