Ken is that rare member of the Regent community that was born and bred in British Columbia. He was hired as the College webmaster in 1999 and has held onto that post ever since. In February 2001 he met a new student named Jennifer and by August they were married. They now have five kids. Ken is also a drummer and a photographer. The latter he occasionally gets paid for.
Can you tell us the story of your struggle with arthritis?
I was 10 when it started. I remember running like any other 10-year-old when I felt a sudden sharp pain in my left hip. Over the next few months the pains continued, and doctors were consulted. “Growing pains” was the best diagnosis they could come up with, although nothing was definite at that point.
Two years later things got worse and more clear. My heels became inflamed, which made it easier to diagnose: arthritis. Specifically, ankylosing spondylitis. Soon my knees became affected as well, and I found myself a regular at the BC Arthritis Centre, where I was given an excellent team of caregivers to help me through what was obviously not going to be a normal childhood. It was there I discovered I wasn’t the only one. The Arthritis Centre has a whole area set aside for children with the disease, and some were in worse shape than me.
I was put on anti-inflammatory medications, and for a few years I was able to lead a somewhat normal life. Then at the start of grade 11 my hips became very sore, walking became hard, and I missed multiple months of school. Inflammation was slowly destroying my hips. This is what an auto-immune disease does: the system designed to protect our bodies turns against itself and attacks it as an enemy.
In my case, the attack destroyed the cartilage in my hips and bone fusion began. By the end of grade 12 the process was almost complete. I walked funny, to say the least, which led to the occasional moments of mockery in the school halls. But I got through high school, and—despite missing quite a few months—managed to graduate on time.
Soon after graduation it became clear hip replacement surgery was my best option. Recent advancements in surgical techniques made the long-term prospects for younger people like myself much better. It took two surgeries, a month in hospital, and two months in rehab, but indeed, the surgery proved very successful. Other than expected parts upgrades along the way, the hips are still doing fine 34 years later. I’m not exactly entering track meets, but I am able to walk without too much pain.
The same cannot be said for other parts of my body. I mentioned previously that the type of arthritis I was diagnosed with is called ankylosing spondylitis. This Greek term (almost) literally means fusion of the spine, and while as a child my spine was unaffected, this all changed as an adult. I began my 20s with a nearly fully functional spine and finished with nearly all my vertebrae fused together, which means the ability to move my neck in any direction is virtually zero. This, of course, gives me a great appreciation for swivel chairs.
My shoulders are also far from ideal; especially the right one, which I broke in a fall thanks to a hip dislocation in 2003 (long story, different article). When a doctor or physiotherapist does a range of motion test it usually results in a sad shake of the head.
Finally, my feet have also been badly affected. Of all the affected parts of my body, my toes most represent the stereotypical arthritis look: gnarled and twisted. Obviously I’m not much for sandals. It’s my feet that make walking most difficult, but with special insoles, I can manage.
And that’s where things stand today. Looking back over all this, it’s interesting that aside from the hip issues, the first full-on arthritis symptoms I experienced have hardly bothered me at all since my mid-teens. I’m grateful for that.
How did the experience of these limitations impact you as a young person?
Oddly, when I first heard I had arthritis I thought the doctors meant cancer. Once I found out I didn’t have cancer the rest was easy.
Well, ok, not easy. But my mom always said I was good at rolling with the punches. I loved playing sports (especially football), but as I lost the ability to do certain activities I adjusted accordingly and found new things to enjoy. Ask me anything about Tolkien. Also, I played saxophone in all the bands and sang in all the choirs I could. The band room became my safe place where the other students accepted me as I was. I’ve since traded in saxophone for drums and Irish whistles, but the love of playing music and singing has stayed with me ever since.
People often don't know how to interact with another person's physical disabilities. What are approaches you appreciate. What approaches are least helpful?
This is a hard question to answer, because my experiences can’t be universally applied to others. I can only speak for myself and the approaches I appreciate. So keeping that in mind, here goes.
I think people who are not “disabled” sometimes try too hard to protect us “differently abled” folks or whatever they are calling us these days. For example, my ability to mock my own physical oddities is important to me. In fact, I can be downright “stiff-necked” about it. But not everyone understands this and are sometimes aghast at my self-deprecation. They are well-meaning, but it can feel a bit patronizing.
People whom I have close relationships with know this about me and respect it. When they feel comfortable enough to join in on the jokes, that’s when I know we’ve become good friends.
This certainly cannot be universally applied. Everyone is different, and as with all things the key is to develop good relationships. Do that and you will figure it out.
I’m tempted to also add, “treat me as if I don’t have a disability,” but that is not entirely true. There are times I do want it to be taken into consideration. For example, my spine and shoulder issues make it nearly impossible for me to reach things on shelves higher than my head. It’s always nice when my family takes that into consideration and keeps commonly used items lower, but it’s not something I would expect anyone outside of my immediate family to think of.
How does having physical limitations impact the way you see God?
When I was first diagnosed with arthritis I thought I deserved it. I thought it a just punishment for my sins. I was not a rebellious youth, but I knew the scriptures well enough to know I didn’t measure up. It wasn’t that I felt God was angry with me. It felt more like there was a process of discipline that I needed to go through to be purified of my sins.
Looking back I don’t entirely reject those feelings because they were not entirely wrong. God has used my arthritis as part of his discipline and correction process in my life. I think I am a better man having gone through it. Although the problem with bringing light to a dark room is that the more light you have the more you see just how much of a mess the room is in.
The problem is, I find the difference between punishment and discipline a line easily blurred. I think the best way I can describe it is the difference between the deserved but cold justice of a court versus the more intimate conversation that a father might have with a beloved but errant son who needs correction in order to set him back on the right path. Over the years God has given me many experiences that have moved my view of him from judge to father. Three in particular stand out.
The first came through a friend. During his prayers my name came to mind, and so he prayed for me. As he did, he felt God telling him, “I know Ken McAllister has arthritis.” Something told him that he needed to share this word with me, and so he did.
Such a simple, obvious message. I mean, he’s God, right? Of course he knows about my arthritis. But when my friend told me, it was something I absolutely needed to hear. God knows me. He knows I have this disease. That was a message of enormous comfort.
The second came through Gordon Fee’s New Testament Survey class, which changed my life in more ways than I can go into here. But it was Gordon's teaching on the “Abba, Father” passages that helped alter my view of God. I had heard that God is love all my life, but for the first time I heard him described as Father in terms of the warm, intimate language of home. I had not known Him in that way previously.
The third came from what I think is a vision. I’m no expert on visions, but if it was that it’s the only vision I’ve ever had. During my high school years I was occasionally mocked for the way I walked. One moment in particular stands out clearly. I was walking down the hall when two girls came from the other direction. The looked at me, laughed to each other, and started mimicking the way I walked, giggling as they did so. As you can imagine, that wasn't very much fun. I tried to shrug it off, but it stayed with me. I didn’t feel a lot of anger towards them, but I did feel shame and rejection.
A few years later, after my hips had been repaired, I was sitting in church, praying, when that scene came vividly back to my mind. It was like I was right back in that hallway again. The girls mocked me as before, but this time something different; there was a presence walking next to me. I turned and saw who I knew to be Jesus. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like, but I knew it was him, walking next to me, step for step, limp for limp. It was like he was telling me that he knew all about pain and sorrow and was with me in this.
How do these experiences impact the way you practice your Christian faith?
I think it has given me some perception into what Paul means by “creation groaning.” My body definitely groans at times. When it does it reminds me that we live in a fallen world, and that my hope is not found in the world—at least not as it currently exists. For people with disabilities, I think it’s easier to be excited about a new creation. No more pain and God wiping every tear sounds pretty sweet to me.
Of course, I still have a lot of dross to burn off. But the older I get the less attached I feel towards this world. For example, I used to joke that I hope Jesus doesn’t return before the Vancouver Canucks win the Stanley Cup. They’re still my team, but at this point in my life I’ve let that dream go.
If you could talk to your 17-year-old self now about this aspect of your life, what would you tell him?
First, know there are people (outside your family) who truly care about you. I spent too much time hiding away, ashamed of my odd appearance to give them a chance. I recall being welcomed back by my church family after being away for three months for my hip surgeries and rehab. They gave me a standing ovation. I didn’t realize there were so many who cared that much about me.
Second, forgive those who mocked you. Kids do stupid and cruel things in an attempt to make themselves look cool or to be popular, and they usually regret these actions later on. I wasn’t innocent of this kind of behaviour. High school can be hard. Cut them some slack, and remember to forgive others as God has forgiven you.
Most importantly, remember that God is for you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? Get that through your head.
As mentioned in his bio above, Ken is also a photographer. You can view some of his photos at kjmphotographic.com.
Also in this issue: a physiotherapist gives insight for Living in and Not in Spite of Our Bodies.