Guest Blog: Identity Crisis

Mary Jane Ponten is a friend, mentor and second mother to me. She has taught me about life and ministry through the years. A couple of months ago, I asked Mary Jane to write out her hilarious story about how disability language changes through the years. Not only did I want it as a memory of her, I wanted to be able to share it whenever I got into discussions about disability language.

So here it is….Mary Jane’s own words about her Identity crisis.



Almost all of us have gone through at least one identity crisis. I have lived 86+ years and obviously have passed through a few stages of life. Allow me to share my story with you.

I was born with cerebral palsy. However, with therapy I grew, and was able play and go to school with the kids in my neighborhood. As far as I was concerned I was just one of the gang. I was just one of the kids, until fourth grade.

The fourth grade teacher had been trying to get me out of “her school” since kindergarten. Now she had her chance. Art came right after recess. She had put our papers from the day before on our desks while we were outside. When we returned to the classroom, she announced, “If your paper is not on your desk it is in the trash – because that’s what it was!” My desk was the only one without a paper.

My best friend, Elsie, and I were crushed. We cried bitterly all the way home. Through our tears we told Mother what had happened. Her response was, “I’m so sorry. I’ll take care of that.” A call to my doctor resulted in my transfer to Gompers School for Crippled Children on the south side of Chicago.

Crisis # 1

The next morning Mother and I took the commuter train to the far south side and walked four blocks to Samuel Gompers School. The principal was very nice and showed us around the school. We saw where the busses were parked, and saw the lunchroom where a hot meal was served every day at no charge. Then she took us to the fourth grade class room.

What a surprise (shock)! A whole room full of crippled children. Some were even in wheelchairs. The teacher introduced me to the class and showed me a desk where I was to sit. The books were much nicer than the ones at the school I had just left. But in my heart I was saying, “I’m not like them! I’m not crippled!” My first identity crisis, at the age of nine! It took a while for me to admit that as the world saw it, I was a crippled child. So, let them believe it, I never did. But there I was, stuck for four years. And yes, in the 8th grade I was voted the best adjusted child in the entire school by the staff.

Crisis # 2

I remained at Gompers until 8th grade graduation. Like most of the children in my class I was enrolled in Spaulding High School for handicapped children. All of a sudden, I was no longer crippled, but rather “handicapped.” I’m glad I did not know the origin of that word until I was a middle age woman. It comes from old British, and means “cap in hand.” A beggar. Whoops.

I graduated from high school and five days later was on a train going 400 miles away from home by myself. I was headed for Bible School and college in Minneapolis. The label was still “handicapped.” Fortunately I did not have any mental handicap. I got my BA in Psychology with two and a half years of bible school all in four and a half years.

Crisis # 3

 After graduation, I found I could not follow the one calling I thought I had from God. I wanted to be a missionary to China. Learning that it wasn’t possible to serve God anywhere, I got a job in the Sales Auditing department of a large department store. I was really no longer a part of the handicapped community. Somewhere during the nine years I worked, the terminology changed once again. I was no longer handicapped, I was only disabled, because I still had cerebral palsy. It sounded polite, you know, socially correct.

After working for nine years I fell in love and married Bud Ponten. He also had cerebral palsy, yet owned his own printing business which for a while supported us. We lived a normal life and did a lot of church work. After a while, Bud sold his business and took a job at the paper mill. Our family was completed by son Tom and daughter Susan.

As the children grew, disability vocabulary changed. We were no longer disabled, now we were only challenged. Yeah! A whole population of people had their identity changed for the third time. But, hold on that’s not the end.

Crisis # 4

The family grew up, our first grandson arrived, and Bud was called Home to be with the Lord. As I entered my sixties, once again our identity changed. We were no longer challenged but rather impaired. This term never really caught on. Most of us still use the word “challenged.”

Crisis # 5

Hold on, we’re not done yet. Let me tell you the rest of MY story. I began working in disability ministry. Naturally we met lots of professionals in this type of work. By then I was in my late 70’s, had grey hair, but was doing quite well physically. By then I did use a cane sometimes.

I was visiting with a small group of physical therapists. I had mentioned something about having cerebral palsy. At the same time they looked at me with a large question mark over their heads. “No, you don’t have CP?”

“I don’t!! What have I got?”

One of the group answered, “We thought you were just getting old.”

From “just one of the gang” to “getting old,” with everything else between, because, you see, I happen to have been born with cerebral palsy.

–Mary Jane Ponten, Executive Director, Mephibosheth Ministry