WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Unlike most students at Southeastern College at Wake Forest, Daniel Ritchie takes notes in class by writing with his feet.
That’s also how he opens doors, brushes his teeth, plays video games and drives his car. The reason? Ritchie is one of only 250-300 people in the United States born without both arms.
Ritchie’s parents, Harry and Emily Ritchie, never had any idea their son would be born without arms, despite several ultrasound tests during the pregnancy.
“It was a complete surprise to the doctor and everyone else in the room,” Emily Ritchie said of the day her son was born. “When he was born, there was a quiet hush over the operating room. But the presence of God was so powerful in that room. Even then, I knew he was going to do something special with his life.”
It seems Emily Ritchie was right.
Far from allowing his disability to slow him down, Ritchie is scheduled to graduate May 26 from Southeastern College at Wake Forest with a double major in biblical studies and the history of ideas and a 3.3 GPA -– not bad for a guy who has to take notes with his feet. Called into the ministry at age 16, Ritchie plans to devote his life to working with youth, especially those struggling to fit in.
After all, Ritchie remembers what that feels like.
Growing up, Ritchie tried his best to fit in with the other kids, learning how to do the activities they were doing like playing soccer, football and video games.
“I always wanted to fit in and be able to be like everybody else,” Ritchie said. “So I figured, ‘Well, I guess I better learn how to do some of these things.’
“I learned how to adapt pretty quickly using my feet. It was kind of natural for me that I just knew that I needed to use my feet for everything, and so I did. It was kind of difficult at first. I guess the toes weren’t naturally meant to do certain things, and you don’t really have an opposable thumb. A lot of things were difficult at first. But I guess there was just a learning curve there that started off really hard, and as I acquired more skills, it slowly became a little easier to deal with. I just adapted the best I could and did most things that every other kid did.”
Unable to play sports like baseball and basketball, Ritchie still was determined that having no arms would not hold him back from playing football.
“I played defensive back in football,” Ritchie recounted. “Most people, when they’ve got to tackle somebody, they hit them and wrap them up. I just had to hit them and hope they fell over.”
Emily Ritchie said her son showed determination in everything he did from day one.
“We thought we would never have to put locks on the cabinets, but we did,” she said, after Ritchie was found pulling out pots and pans with his feet.
“He was very, very determined, and we never allowed him to say, ‘I can’t.’”
She describes the day that Ritchie had to learn to open a door by himself for the first time.
“It took him about a half an hour to open the door,” she said. “I wouldn’t open it for him. I went in the bathroom, closed the door and cried. But I knew that if we did everything for him, he would not be independent.”
The traditionally turbulent middle school years were especially difficult for Ritchie, who battled with depression because he had difficulty making friends. Since he was not a Christian at the time, he had trouble coming to grips with the way God had chosen to make him.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends,” he said. “I wasn’t really outgoing at all. It was really difficult for me just trying to deal with that.”
However, things changed at age 15 when Ritchie trusted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“After I got saved, God really started working in me,” Ritchie said. “I mean, it was a slow process gaining that confidence, but He really, really just did a work in me for the next few years. I slowly developed my confidence in Him more than anything.”
Now, Ritchie plans to minister to other kids feeling the same way he felt.
“I really have a heart for kids that feel like they’re outcasts and kids that just don’t feel like they have a place anywhere,” Ritchie said, “because I know what that’s like. I so have a heart for those kids because I know what they’re going through. I really want to reach out to them in any way I can, whether by being a youth pastor or having a ministry that’s oriented toward them. I just know that above all else, I love youth and I don’t see it as a stepping-stone ministry but as a fulltime ministry for the rest of my life.”
Ritchie has realized that his disability provides a ready-made conversation starter and an easy way to transition from his personal testimony to the Gospel. Often, starting a conversation doesn’t take much work for Ritchie, his mother said.
“People are drawn to Daniel because of his disability,” Emily Ritchie said. “He has an outgoing personality and he is a very upbeat person. But I believe God has used his disability to draw people to Daniel so that God’s power can be on display in his life.”
Ritchie explained his strategy for magnifying God through his disability:
“I really talk about how in my mind as a kid I used to be uncomfortable with this, knowing that I was different,” he said. “That really used to bother me. Then I got saved when I was 15 and I really started growing in my faith. One of the first things I really started to learn and started to understand was that I was a special creation in the hands of an intelligent Maker. And I share with them Psalm 139, where David said, ‘I was fearfully and wonderfully made,’ and how even while I was still in my mother’s womb He was forming me and knitting me together.
“I share that God had a purpose in this. I talk to them about John 9 when Jesus heals a blind man, and the disciples thought that his parents had messed up or he had sinned because he was born this way. But [Jesus] said, ‘It was so the work of God can be shown in him.’ And so I just tell people, ‘No matter how untalented you think you are or how different you think you are, God can use everyone. That grace is extended to everyone, regardless of your race or your background or your past sins or whatever. Grace is extended to everyone.”
Ritchie said he also likes to share his testimony with fellow Christians as a means of encouraging them. Those who know him best say it’s difficult to stay discouraged for long after being around the upbeat Ritchie.
“If God has gotten me this far in my life,” Ritchie tells people, “no matter what you have to face -– whether it be a family member dying of cancer, or a sick child, or tough financial times or whatever -– even though things might not go as we would have planned, God is still sovereign and God is still Lord over that.”
“He has a captive audience,” his mother noted. “They’re just so amazed that he can do anything that he can do. He believes that everyone that crosses his path is not an accident.”
Take, for example, the clerk at the convenience store Ritchie met the other day. Surprised when she saw Ritchie open up the refrigerator and pull out a drink with his feet, the woman was more than willing to hear Ritchie tell his story.
“I got to share my testimony right there with her in the middle of a little convenience store,” Ritchie said. “And she was so glad. She was a Christian lady and she was really encouraged. It’s an amazing opportunity because I guess people don’t get to meet a person without arms everyday. It’s something that grabs their attention and gives me an opportunity to share Christ with them, and it’s a great way to have people open up to you so quickly.”
Pete Schemm, dean of Southeastern College at Wake Forest, is another person who has been encouraged by Ritchie’s testimony and his presence on the North Carolina campus.
“Daniel seems to be a young man who is determined to live life to the fullest despite his physical limitations,” Schemm said. “He is what the Apostle Paul calls a living epistle -– a walking testimony of God’s grace.”
Ritchie gives God all of the credit for truly embracing his disability, so much so that he wouldn’t change even if he had the opportunity.
“People come up and ask me all the time if I would choose to be different or if I have ever thought about getting prosthetic arms,” Ritchie said. “And I always tell them ‘no’ just because I find it so intriguing to be different. I love it. I don’t know why. I know it’s who God made me to be and I know that He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to look at yourself and to know that I’m unique and that we’re all unique, whether it be that some of us have bluer eyes than others or darker hair, or whatever the case may be. We’re all so unique, and it’s such a beautiful thing to see that intelligent design of God.”
Emily Ritchie likewise is convinced that God made no mistakes when He made Daniel without arms.
“We believe Daniel was born without arms for a reason,” she said. “His disability is a platform for God’s power to be displayed.”
After graduation, Ritchie plans to be married in August and likely will move to the western part of North Carolina where he hopes to find a full-time ministry position.