Longform

Jennifer Longdon Wears Her Heart on Her Facebook Page

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On Christmas Eve, when the rest of us were posting pictures of cookies for Santa and status updates about annoying extended family members, Longdon wrote:

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.

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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.