Wheelchair miracles

One of the best-known pieces of media in the skeptical canon, is a video in which James Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff ran a scam where he called out people’s names in a crowd, described their diseases, and claimed to heal them by laying on hands. James Randi and his associates demonstrated that Popoff did not get these names from divine revelation, but instead got them from his wife, who had collected that information beforehand and was speaking to him through an earpiece.

Under media fire, Popoff’s ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987–but rebooted again in the late 90s. As far as I know Peter Popoff is still at large, now on the Black Entertainment Network.

I want to talk about a particular kind of miracle that Popoff is said to perform: allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again. Back when I was more invested in the skeptical movement, I had heard that they just had fully mobile people seated in wheelchairs, and thought “well that explains it”. This is the explanation currently offered by Wikipedia:

Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic “cures” were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff’s assistants prior to broadcasts.[10]

But years later, I had a quiet realization: such fraudulent tactics aren’t necessary, because many people in wheelchairs can in fact walk!

The fact that some wheelchair-users can walk is obvious once you know to ask the right question. I found multiple articles offering various reasons why people who can walk might still need wheelchairs. Maybe they can walk, but it’s painful, or medically inadvisable, or some days they can’t walk.

As a personal example, one of my older relatives has sudden attacks of vertigo that cause him to completely lose balance. He started using a walker not because he couldn’t walk without it, but because it would save him from breaking his hip again if he lost his balance. The reasons for wheelchair use can be similarly complicated.

When talking about Popoff’s wheelchair miracles, Wikipedia cites “God’s Frequency is 39.17 MHz: The Investigation of Peter Popoff” in Science and the Paranormal. This is the original 1987 article debunking Peter Popoff. Under a careful read, Popoff was employing not one but two methods to “heal” people in wheelchairs:

  1. The investigator saw two empty wheelchairs parked in the orchestra pit. Then two women in canes walked in and sat in the wheelchairs, one saying “I guess this is where they want us to sit.” These women were later “healed”.
  2. At the same time, the investigator was disguised as a woman in a wheelchair with uterine cancer (the investigator is a cis man). Popoff’s wife asked him if he could walk at all, and he said he could walk a little. Later Popoff “cured” his uterine cancer and got him to walk.

So contra Wikipedia, it was not always the case that Popoff sat fully ambulatory people in wheelchairs. Sometimes he “healed” people in wheelchairs when he received the information that they could walk at least a little.

I’m not sure how representative Peter Popoff is of faith healers. Popoff obviously knows he is a con man, but it seems plausible that other faith healers might believe in their own power. Seating ambulatory people in wheelchairs is a tactic that only a knowing con man would use. For “honest” faith healers, they probably try to heal many people in wheelchairs, and are happy to see at least some of them walk. But in a way, this is actually more insidious, because even if people in wheelchairs can walk, it might be dangerous to them. Science-Based Medicine described a case where someone actually died a bit later due to the stress on her spine.

Although not all Christians believe in faith healers, it seems that many Christians believe it is appropriate to pray for people with disabilities–even complete strangers–to be healed. This is described in a BBC article “Stop trying to ‘heal’ me“.

Reverend Zoe Hemming […] is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”

Keep in mind that not all people with disabilities believe they are broken and need to be fixed. While it is said that Jesus miraculously cured many disabilities, adopting that attitude towards disabled people today is certainly inappropriate.


  1. says

    I have used wheelchairs many times. Music festivals and other events that not only require walking but also getting down to the ground and back up again are both incredibly exhausting and monumentally painful for me, even though I walk around inside my flat without even using my crutches on most days.

    It always surprises the fuck out of me that people haven’t figured out that wheelchairs are vehicles. Like someone who skateboards to school, I wheelchair around a music festival. There are dramatic drawbacks to both skateboards and to wheelchairs (sand, stairs and grassy lawns being three obvious ones that affect both). Further, for most people their legs are more capable of sustained mobility than their arms: it takes work to propel a wheelchair. So there are excellent reasons NOT to use a wheelchair in many circumstances, just as there are excellent reasons NOT to use a skateboard in many circumstances.

    But if your health or quality of life would improve by using a wheelchair for some circumstances, and you have a wheelchair available to you, why in the world should you not use the wheelchair in those circumstances even if you would not use the wheelchair in others?

    When it helps, use it. When it doesn’t, don’t. In border cases, consider the economics and environmentalism of manufacturing/purchasing one. That’s it.

    Of course, none of that is to say that able-bodied people’s dramatic ignorance of the purpose of wheelchairs can’t be a tremendous positive. There have been a number of times when I have left my wheelchair near the edge of the grass at a park and walked a short way to where my friends and I were having a picnic. The empty wheelchair just a couple feet off the paved walkway will often startle passersby, and their panicked expressions are just precious. Fortunately none has been so traumatized that they called emergency services to find the missing cripple – that would be a waste of resources!

  2. says

    @Crip Dyke,
    Thank you for the anecdote!

    From an able-bodied point of view, it always seems like people are attached to their wheelchairs, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone get in or out of one. But I’m sure it happens!

    One time a friend told me that she requests wheelchairs at airports, because the amount of walking required is both exhausting and painful. So she’d walk up to the wheelchair chaperones and sit down. This would often confuse onlookers, but I’m sure the chaperones, at least, know what’s up.

  3. anothersara says

    I think this reflects a general trend to see (dis)ability as an all-or-nothing thing rather than a continuum. For example, many legally blind people have some ability to see (for example, they might be able to see the difference between a bright environment and a dark environment), yet the overwhelming majority of representation of visually impaired people in media is either on the ‘can be fully corrected by lenses’ side or all the way to the ‘totally blind, can’t see anything’ side; acknowledgement of people who fall in between is very rare.

  4. says

    Most people rely on snap judgements and never think about the history of the person who arrives in a wheelchair. Directly after her knee replacement my partner could hobble a few steps between the chair and her bed. That didn’t mean she could walk to the nearest used book shop from the recovery wing so I pushed her there in the wheelchair. Mental health and all that.

    My mother on the other hand had a stroke and lost the use of the entire left side of her body. Although she retained the strength in her right side for a while to pull herself upright, no faith healer could have pulled that magic trick with her.

  5. Ridana says

    I don’t think Jesus ever healed anyone who didn’t ask him to. Why would he (unless like his dad he does stuff just to show off), since he won’t even save you from eternal damnation unless you ask?

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