God bless us — everyone.

Well, some cripple has to say it.

This pretty 52-year-old mom with thick dark hair and a wry grin is putting a face on disability that you can't look away from.

The couple regularly hiked Piestawa Peak.
Courtesy of Jennifer Longdon
The couple regularly hiked Piestawa Peak.
Longdon took part in February's 
anti-discrimination debate before the city council at the Orpheum Theatre.
Jamie Peachey
Longdon took part in February's anti-discrimination debate before the city council at the Orpheum Theatre.

I can't, anyway. I didn't remember who friended whom when I approached Longdon about profiling her for New Times — I'd been following her on Facebook for more than a year. I just knew she'd made an impact on me. When she posted that she'd read a story to a class of elementary school kids on Dr. Seuss' birthday, I winced, having canceled my own appointment to do the same. Really, she could get her butt out of bed to do it, but I couldn't? The other day, I found myself stopping my car by a freeway exit to hand money to a guy with a missing leg and a sign, something I never do. When a colleague was booking space for a work event recently, I pointed out that one of the options discussed was not accessible to someone who can't climb stairs.

It's hardly a point of pride, but the truth is that these aren't things I considered much before Longdon and I became friends on Facebook. And even though journalists aren't supposed to write about their friends, I decided to write about Jennifer.

I asked a few of our mutual friends on Facebook whether they similarly have been affected; turns out, they have. But the best example I found actually played out via Twitter, which Longdon is on as well.

Tim McGuire is the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, which is a fancy way of saying that the guy knows his way around a newspaper. In fact, he was the editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis for a decade and managing editor before that. He also happens to have been born with arthogriposis multi congenita, a genetic condition that didn't put him in a wheelchair but has affected what he can do physically.

"I learned to walk at 18 months in plaster of Paris casts," McGuire wrote in a post at www.cronkite.asu.edu/mcguireblog. "I had 13 surgeries before I was 16 years old. My right arm is mostly decorative. I have walked with a profound limp all my life. Yet the words handicapped or disabled were never acceptable to me."

Things got a little trickier recently when surgery made an electric cart necessary, McGuire continued, but still, he resisted labels — as well as handicapped parking spots. Then he encountered Jennifer Longdon.

In 2011, Longdon participated in Ignite, the local knockoff of the national phenomenon in which people take the stage to talk about anything from the history of Japanese rock music to the dangers of lice. Longdon's talk was titled "Life at Butt Level," and it's still up on the Ignite Phoenix website, www.ignitephoenix.com.

"If you watch it, your tears and laughter are going to get mixed up into one dramatic and confused mess. It is brilliant," McGuire wrote.

But that's not what moved him to agree — finally — to accept an invitation to join the board of the National Center for Disability Journalism. It was Longdon's tweets after the event, in which she described the pain of being unable to attend the after-party, held at the top of a long, narrow flight of stairs at a Scottsdale bar she couldn't access in her wheelchair.

McGuire remains a fan. He joined the board of the disability journalism organization, and rumor has it that he's now working on a memoir.

As for Longdon, she hasn't posted on her own personal blog, jenlongdon.wordpress.com, since December. But she can be forgiven, considering how busy 2013's been so far.

Last week, she did her ride-along — in a helicopter —with the Phoenix Police Department and graduated from the Citizen Police Academy. She worked hard on the provisions of the human-rights ordinance passed last month by the Phoenix City Council that dealt with disability issues (not as sexy as the LGBT component, her efforts got no attention from the press); publicized the case of a woman whose wheelchair was stolen; attended an anti-bully vigil at the invitation of Phoenix first lady Nicole Stanton; and led the pledge of allegiance at the State of the City address. And that's just a sampling.

You might be tempted to say that Jennifer Longdon's on a roll, but she prefers you'd leave the wheelchair jokes to her.

In recent days, she's found it harder to smile. All that work has taken its toll on her body, as well as her van. With little financial support from the government and less from freelance writing, she struggles to pay to keep up both, and she's just posted on Facebook that she's in danger of losing her health coverage, because of an administrative snag. Her Facebook friends rush forward with support and advice about advocates for the advocate.

She posts late on a Friday afternoon that, regretfully, she's home for the night instead of out with friends:

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5 comments
Pat Elliott
Pat Elliott

Fantastic. We need to see more stories like this and hear from more journalists like Amy Silverman who can tackle difficult topics with sensitivity and accuracy.

Saracat
Saracat

Jen is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. Her courage and compassion are an inspiration and her sense of humor is hilarious

stefnj2000
stefnj2000

Jennifer is the epitome of strength and resilience. She is an inspiration to many and a true voice for wheelchair users, those with spinal cord injuries and others.

This article takes us into her life in the most intimate of ways. She allows us to know what her struggles are and that they don't stop her from countless hours volunteering and committees. I am proud to be a Phoenician with Jennifer Longdon.

kennedymsw
kennedymsw

Wonderful article and a great spokesperson and advocate for so many people and causes.  I hope Jennifer does run for office she needs a larger platform than facebook. 

donnagratehouse
donnagratehouse

Jennifer Longdon is the coolest person ever. I'm honored to know her. 

Great piece, Amy. One of your best. 

 
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