“Hiking to the Y in My Wheelchair,” Ensign, June 2020
I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age seven. At the time of my diagnosis, my doctor said, “Your muscles are going to weaken and eventually you’ll be in a wheelchair. There’s no cure and no viable treatment options.” Then, looking at my mother, he said, “Your son will depend on you for care for the rest of his life. He won’t graduate high school or college. For your own emotional well-being, and his, it is best not to expect much from him.”
My doctor was smart and well meaning, but he was unable to see the strength and value of the person beneath the diagnosis. With the support of my mother and many others, I have successfully completed high school, college, and graduate school. I am a husband, father, homeowner, and professional. Despite my doctor’s grim prognosis, I like to think I have demonstrated great capacity and value.
I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a young teenager. My experience in the Church has taught me to view my fellow Latter-day Saints as sons and daughters of God rather than use the labels of the world. This can be a difficult perspective to keep, since our first reaction is often to identify and respond to differences before stopping to consider the value each individual brings to the rich tapestry that is the kingdom of God.
Many kind and wonderful brothers and sisters have treated me with great love and compassion. However, some struggle to see beyond my wheelchair and consider the strength, value, and contribution that I can offer.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, a well-intentioned member of our ward pulled her aside and wanted to make sure she understood that, due to my disability, I would never be able to fulfill my obligations as a father. On another occasion, a well-meaning member of the bishopric told me they were not considering me for a calling due to the burden it would mean for my family and me. Perhaps these people thought they were helping, but in each case I felt unfairly judged and unneeded. These people were so focused on the challenges associated with my disability that they didn’t grasp the unique capabilities I could offer in my roles as a father and as a disciple of the Lord.
Thankfully, there have been many positive experiences for me in the Church regarding my disability. One took place when I was a student at Brigham Young University. I loved going to classes and attending sporting and social events, but I never expected to be able to hike to the large cement Y on the mountainside above the campus. Mountains are not usually considered accessible for wheelchairs.
One year, my friend Jon mentioned that he and some friends had hiked to the Y. I couldn’t hide my disappointment as I listened to him and knew I would never have the opportunity to cross “hiking to the Y” off my BYU bucket list.
A few weeks later, Jon entered my dorm room and said, “Be ready at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday. Dress in warm clothes and make sure you’re in your manual wheelchair.” When Saturday came, Jon met me at my room and took me to the lobby, where I was surprised to be greeted by over 20 friends.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Jon responded, “Today you’re going to hike to the Y!” Seeing how happy all of my friends were to be there and recognizing how excited they were to help me reach one of my dreams filled me with excitement and appreciation. I couldn’t believe that so many were willing to give up a Saturday to help me up a mountain.
When we arrived at the base of the mountain, I realized it was larger and steeper than it appeared from campus. Sensing I was out of my comfort zone, my friend Matt said, “Don’t worry. We promise not to drop you.” His words would have been more reassuring to me had he not been laughing so hard when he said them.
Because my manual wheelchair didn’t have a seat belt, my friends strapped me into my seat using their old neckties. The trail consisted of a series of 12 switchbacks. We made it up the first couple of switchbacks pretty quickly. Friends were carrying my wheelchair pharaoh-style. People were singing, telling jokes, and laughing. We were all having a fun time.
However, with each subsequent switchback, I could see that the strain of carrying me was starting to take its toll. My friends’ faces were turning red and they were sweating. The longer they lifted, the hotter they became. Jackets and sweatshirts started coming off. With nowhere to put them, they began stacking their jackets on my lap. Before long, the stack of jackets had piled up so high that they reached my chin.
When we had first started the hike, the plan was to stop at the end of every switchback to rest and to rotate people in and out as a means of dividing up the lifting. As we made our way farther up the mountain, it was decided that more breaks were needed.
When we ran into people coming down the mountain, they were always surprised to see us. “How much farther is it?” someone would ask, and the answer was always disappointing. We still had a long way to go. Nevertheless, no one uttered a single word of complaint. The atmosphere remained positive, while at the same time everyone’s resolve to make it to the top intensified.
After the haul of a lifetime, we reached the base of the Y. I felt like a million bucks. Then I heard a couple of the guys say, “We didn’t make it this far to stop at the base. We’ve got to get Vance clear to the top.” And with that, we pressed on until my wheelchair and I were at the top of the Y.
The view was breathtaking. I had never been up so high, and I was filled with awe. Using my cell phone, I called my mom. “Guess where I am,” I proclaimed. I could hardly tell her, due to the tears that had started flowing. My friends began crying too. In that moment, sitting on the side of a mountain, having expended all of our energies in love to achieve what seemed impossible, my friends and I became one.
In His great Intercessory Prayer, the Savior of the world lovingly petitioned our Father in Heaven to bless us with unity, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one” (John 17:21). In our day, the Lord has repeated His call for unity, saying, “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).
That special day on Y Mountain, my friends saw my value as an individual. They did not see my disability as limiting but rather as an opportunity for all of us to learn and serve. We could do what seemed impossible because we did it together. The experience brought us all closer to each other and to the Savior, who said, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That day, my friends and I learned what it means to recognize one another’s strengths and to come together as one.