What do those with disabilities owe those without?
June 5, 2014
I am a blind person. Admittedly, beginning a piece with such a declaration seems odd. Blindness however plays a key role in my life. It has shaped me in many ways and has forced me to ask questions of myself that I might not otherwise ask. Having known what it feels like to be both under appreciated and over appreciated as a blind person, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how as a Christian I should respond properly.
One of the questions I have asked and have tried to answer in general terms is: "What do those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities and vice versa? Asking this question might seem wrongheaded in a society, not unlike others, that tends to focus attention on the question: "how shall we best help those with disabilities? While this question is not out of place in all circumstances, it is tilted to one group's responsibility without taking into account the other group's need also to do its ethical duty.
There are two assumptions I take for granted that lead me to ask this question. The first assumption is that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore responsible agents who are to give and receive respect. Disability or not, every person shares the same stage on this score. The second assumption is that modern political thought, with its emphasis on the equality of every individual before the law and its belief that every individual is at the same time unique, I take to be correct in the main. With these two assumptions in mind, it seems right that my question should be posed. Again, what do those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities and vice versa?
The Debt of the Disabled
Operative throughout this entire discussion is the Golden Rule, which states that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us. There are cases in which this rule would be monstrous to apply. A mentally deranged person might in fact love pain and therefore wish to inflict it on others because this is how she wishes to be treated herself. Emphatically, such people should go out of their way not to keep the Golden Rule in that instant.
To proceed then: The first thing those with disabilities owe to those who do not have them is patience. Speaking from personal experience, it is too easy for those with disabilities to attribute evil motives to those who offer to help them or make a joke about one disability or another. Clearly, there are plenty of insensitive and cruel people, but the harboring of suspicion always magnifies evil motives and actions beyond a proper degree. Most of us do not like in fact to have our motives or actions denigrated as unkind or mean-spirited when we did not intend to be unkind or mean. Furthermore, it is too much to expect others to understand circumstances as well or better than those who are in them. To ask a person with perfect hearing or sight to understand the way a deaf or blind person respectively copes with life is to be unreasonable and is in fact a way for those with disabilities to alienate others rather than unite with them.
Secondly, those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities the willingness to be the conversation starter.
When I was in high school, I had what was called an itinerant teacher, a teacher who spent a couple of hours with me a few days a week outside of the usual classroom setting in order to teach me things that were specific to blindness or help me find alternative ways to do mainstream assignments as a blind person. One day, she gave me an assignment that terrified me. She asked me to make an effort to start a conversation with the girl who sat next to me in my science class. It was already bad enough that as a fifteen-year-old boy, I was horrified by as well as attracted to girls, but being blind on top of that? And being forced to start a conversation? What if she ignored me? What if I get laughed at? She graded me on these kinds of assignments, so I had no choice unless I wanted both to provoke her wrath (always gentle but firm) and forego getting a grade for something that didn't require me to write anything. I did it, and it turned out fine. The girl talked back to me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I don't remember at all what we talked about, but I remember feeling good about the fact that I had done it.
The truth is that people are frightening. Honest examination of our motives and desires ought to convince us of this. Knowing though that we are all frightening to each other at some level though can enable us to make the first move in a conversation rather than waiting for someone else to do it. If I really believe that I am a human created in God's image and so equal to every other human being in worth and dignity, then do I really need to be afraid of others in the long run? Does my blindness need to be something of which I am ashamed if I see it as somehow the result of the plan of a sovereign God? (I haven't said anything here about introverted people. This is because introversion is not a disability but a natural character trait. I by no means wish to suggest that everyone become extroverted and learn how to start conversations. Introverted people don't typically start conversations, but their lack of doing so has little to do it seems to me with the reasons why so many people with or without disabilities for that matter avoid doing so).
Third, people with disabilities owe to those without them a healthy sense of humor. Allowing for temperamental differences, it is still the case that a sense of humor is, to borrow from Proverbs, a good medicine. Christians believe in any case that their best days are yet to come and that this life, while not diminished in its importance, is like a waiting room. If Christians believe this, it seems that a sense of humor is an appropriate response to a disability over which they have no control. Laughing at ourselves reminds us that we are ultimately not terribly important and liberates us from the burdens often accompanying our sense of self-worth, especially when that sense of self-worth about ourselves is not shared by others about ourselves.
Lastly, those with disabilities owe others forgiveness.
When I was converted to Christianity in my teens, I learned for the first time in my life that God commanded me to forgive those who had wronged me. This command has become central to my thinking and to my attempt to live the Christian life. As with waiting for someone else to start a conversation, it is easy, at least it is easy in my case, to wait for someone else to reach out to me with love and understanding before I reach out to them. On the other hand, making a habit of constantly entertaining a forgiving spirit makes it possible for me to be in a position to reach out first. It is true that insensitive people wrong us by giving a job to someone else when perhaps we were better qualified. But the reason we did not get the job happened to be because we were blind or in a wheelchair etc. Bitterness and resentment, though powerful temptations, are not an option for those who profess faith in Christ.
The Debt of the Abled
The first thing those without disabilities owe to those with them is dignified treatment. This means that pity is often not one's first best response when confronted with someone with a disability. Pity or compassion is a fine thing but not for example when a blind person is capable of doing a job and out of pity you forego giving him the responsibility because the job is too strenuous. Furthermore, compassion is often a disguised form of guilt. I feel bad that I don't have a disability and this other person over here does. Guilt then is translated into pity rather than dignified treatment. Compassion unchecked can often be a disguise for someone with a superiority complex. I'm better than this person over here with a disability, and so I will pity her even though I know in my heart that well, perhaps she deserves this disability.
Secondly, those with disabilities are owed trust. Practically, this means that a person with a disability knows better than anyone else what her capabilities are. Going back to the beginning of this piece, I said that too often, the question about how to help those with disabilities is raised before one has carefully considered whether they really need help or not. The best way to find out what those with disabilities need is to ask THEM. Of course, when first meeting someone with a disability, the first thing to say is hello. Many times, the question of help need not arise. People often are willing to tell you what they need especially when what they need is integral to their ability to function. To ask someone you don't know if she needs help is to put her in an awkward spot. "What am I doing that makes it look like I need help? Assuming capability until proven incompetent is best and safest.
Asking the question: What do those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities and vice versa? Is a way to start a necessary conversation. For one thing, the question makes it clear that both groups of people owe something to the other. It is not a one-sided situation. Treating this issue as if all burdens of responsibility ought to be placed on what I will call the "abled" group intentionally or unintentionally fosters a custodial mentality and often resentment on the part of those who help. Framing the question in the way that I have places ownership on everyone to do their part in seeing that those with and those without disabilities are treated as fairly by one another as possible.
This piece was originally presented at Faith Bible College and Theological Seminary in Ankeny Iowa. Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth TX. A prior piece about Cody can be found at http://idbonline.org/publications/white-cane-magazine-fall-2010/features