Widespread Thoughtlessness towards People with Disabilities

My son Jacob, 22 months-old

My son Jacob, 22 months-old

My son Jacob who is almost 2-years-old has Down syndrome. Since having him, I have tuned in more keenly to the widespread insensitivity that flies around in popular culture and in politics towards people with disabilities. I have a message for all of us: think before you speak.

While I rarely hear flagrant attacks upon people with disabilities, more often, I hear off-handed comments and statements that clearly do not respect the integrity and worth of people who live with disabilities, most especially towards those with cognitive or severe physical disabilities. I know that most of these comments are not meant to be mean-hearted or insulting, but they are thoughtless and therefore disparaging.

Here’s a recent sampling from a diverse group of people over the last year:

  • President Barack Obama on The Tonight Show talking about his 129 bowling score: “It’s like – it was like the Special Olympics, or something.”
  • White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, describing a group of liberal activists labeled them “f—ing retarded”.
  • Rush Limbaugh, commenting on Immanuel’s statement and the ensuing backlash, said, “Our political correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.”
  • Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall speaking against continued state funding for Planned Parenthood, “The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children. In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.” No matter Del. Marshall’s intent, his comments suggested that people born with disabilities following an abortion are suffering God’s punishment.

These comments illustrate a painful reality that people with disabilities and their families live with: ignorance. While incredibly great strides have been made to mainstream people with disabilities into the “typically-abled” world, many people simply do not understand or know how to relate to people with disabilities. I can’t expect that we would all fully understand every disability out there, but we can strive to learn, understand, and appreciate people where they are and as they are.

Often, there seems to be a fear factor surrounding people with disabilities. They’re not like the rest of us, so what do we do? How do we handle their differences? Don’t they take away from our lives as usual? Honestly, before having Jacob, I shared some of these fears. Right after the doctors began telling us that Jacob has Down syndrome, I started to fear for his future and my family’s future. How would Jacob make it in this world? How would we do as a family?

But, when we come to know and love people with disabilities, we can discover the joy of getting to know someone who’s different than us. We discover the uniquely powerful contributions they make to families, faith communities like my church, and to the larger community surrounding them. We learn that they deepen and enrich our lives, not take away from them. In fact, we unearth a very deep truth: disabilities are not handicaps but uniquely special differences.

For these reasons, perhaps our society could one day change the term from people with disabilities to differently-abled people. This is not a mere shift in semantics or another layer of political correctness. On the contrary, this would be a major leap away from seeing people like my son as a person with deficits while seeing him as I see him– indeed as God sees him!– as a person with very different gifts to offer us and the world around him.

As this transformation takes place within us, we can continue to form a society which is open to opportunities for all people to contribute and share their unique gifts. Of course, that includes differently-abled people. And as this transformation unfolds, we’ll hear increasingly fewer of the implicitly and explicitly thoughtless comments said about people with disabilities and other people groups, too. After all, God has created each person in his image and therefore, each of us are of unlimited sacred value to God and to each other.


Filed under Cultural Quakes

15 Responses to Widespread Thoughtlessness towards People with Disabilities

  1. I love your blog!! Thank you so much for sharing your story and hopefully helping others to understand that their actions towards individuals with disabilities do affects others and we all need to show more respect for people with disabilities. After al, we all have some sort of disability (whether we want to admit it or not).
    Check out my blog and let me know what you think.
    Thank you for your post and keep up the good work 🙂

  2. Alvin Dickerson

    Thanks for the observations, Chris. I have to agree with you in the main. However, wouldn’t you have to admit that some different-abilities will cause some limitations in standard society? The reason I say that is because that what was what helped me come to a new respect for and comfort with the differently-abled. A close friend of mine had severe cerebral palsy. His symptoms were very extreme (negative motor control, couldn’t speak, feed himself, etc.) but his mind was untouched; he was extremely sharp mentally. He struggled with his manhood, though, being convinced by society that he was less than a man because he wasn’t a tough guy (like Rambo or John Wayne) or a womanizing cad (like Michael Douglas). We spent many an hour in the Bible as I tried to convince him that God didn’t define a real man as either of those, and in fact both those categories are the antithesis of a real man. Anyway, in trying to help him, the light finally came on for me. And here is where I would disagree with your statement of seeing Jacob as you and God see him. Rather, the more transforming view is to see MYSELF as God sees me. Because compared to an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, holy, good, and loving God, I am more limited than Jacob or my friend are compared to me! By letting God be my mark of perfection rather than myself or any other human, I find myself quick to respect others, differently-abled or not, because I know just how serverely limited I am myself compared to the Perfect Standard. Thanks for the challenging thoughts, man.

    • Alvin, thank you for your challenging thoughts, too! I’m curious what limitations you see differently-abled people placing in standard society. I would agree that the popular perception would affirm something like that, but that all depends on what one considers a limit and on what projection society is in. Theologically and biblically, I see God aiming to recreate society into the kingdom of God in which people reclaim life and their God image through Jesus Christ, living in a community of mutual blessing from God to us, from us to each other, and ultimately back to God, glorifying God as Lord. As for our we see ourselves and each other, I see both God’s image and the ways God’s image has yet to be restored in us, myself especially. I don’t see the mark of perfection in anyone, but I think what helps us to treat all people with dignity and worth is to remember that each one is created by God in God’s image, no matter how distorted that current image may be by the ravages of sin.

      • Alvin Dickerson

        What I mean by limitations are obvious ones like blind people being unable to drive, or a man with no arms playing baseball, or me running a 4-minute mile. The friend I mentioned in my earlier comment was absolutely dependent on others for almost everything, even to eat or use the toilet. He wanted it to be otherwise, but he was limited in doing things that you and I take for granted. When he went with me to a men’s retreat, I had to change his bladder bag for him. It was probably more humbling for him than for me. As much as we may desire to have a perfect, inclusive society, until Christ remakes humanity back into the physical as well as spiritual and emotional perfection we originally had, we will all have limitations. Until then, certain limitations will be on all of us. The Special Olympics is a perfect example of our society recognizing that. You can’t create a level-playing in all cases by legislation or just by thinking it so (though I agree that that is necessary for some issues, eg. elevators in public buildings). Having said that, however, due to various friendships in my past, rather than treating those with different limitations than my own as somehow being “less human” than me, I have the highest/deepest respect for those who have to learn to cope with challenges that I can hardly imagine.
        We’re in agreement on what God is doing with humanity through Christ. What I meant by seeing myself as how God sees me, I was talking about limitations such as my inability to speak a universe in existence, my inability to raise the dead back to life, my inability to cause a virgin to give birth, my inability to grant someone forgiveness of sin and eternal life… God things. In the sight God, I am more differently-abled compared to Him, than any human being such as my friend or Jacob will ever be compared to me. And that (in my opinion) is the sin in all prejudice–I remove God as the standard of all perfection and make myself that standard instead. James had a lot to say about that in his epistle, particularly in the fourth chapter. Prejudice in any form is playing God, whether it is based on ethnic background, gender, skin color, or mental and physical ability.
        Hope this makes sense.

  3. Alvin Dickerson

    PS. Love the photo of Jacob. Very eclectic taste, that young man; both Pampers and Huggies!

  4. As I said when I saw Marshall’s cruel, inaccurate, and mean-spirited remarks, all you have to do is look at John 9: 1-3 for the appropriate Christian response to disability.

    • Excellent point, Lynn, and I think you’re right. In Jesus’ day, disabilities were widely believed to be the direct result of someone’s sin, mainly the child’s parents. Jesus, however, changed that thinking, and I’m glad he did! God’s glory can be shown through any disability!

  5. theodicy

    Prejudice against those who are in any way apart from the norm stems from fear as well as ignorance, I’m sorry to say. Which makes no sense, as there really IS no norm. We are all different, all with our greatnesses and flaws and assets and broken parts.
    Everyone will have changes in ability as we go through life. It’s wise to accept this as part of human existence.
    As my friend Lynn aptly points out, Mr. Marshall, Jesus is very clear that God doesn’t work that way.

  6. When we switched our thinking from Learning Dis-Ability to Learning Differences – or Different-ly – it changed our whole household. Teachers, Tutors and Coaches had to be taught, by us, how our son needed the instruction differently – so he Could do it.
    We find the saddest thing is the discarding of people who do not fit in the pocket of physical and academic norm. People see my son, who looks like a 14 year old, is actually an 11 year old, and has the speech of a 9 year old. When he tries to verbally communicate – it sounds odd. People discount what he has to say, instead of giving him the few minutes to warm up, and show his wisdom of someone much older. I sigh and shake my head at those with no patience, their lack of understanding and wisdom is indescribable.

    • That’s the way we think, too. After my son was born and the doctors told us he has Down syndrome, a nurse gave me the best advice. She said, “Just love him and care for him like an other baby.” That stuck. To this day, my wife and I don’t compare him to other kids but allow Jacob to be himself and that includes the way he learns.

  7. Excellent blog. I have a daughter with Learning Disablitities and Sensory Integration Disorder. Add to that Precocious Puberty and we end up a child who is 10 years old, who looks 15, and sounds younger than 10. She is constantly treated like she is slow by teachers, when indeed her I.Q. is above average.
    I have completed two children’s books manuscripts that deal with acceptance of children who are different. Please add to your prayers that these books will be picked up by a publisher.

  8. I be eye’n yer scrawlings with joy. In Egypt thar be far greater “able-ism” than here in the States. Much like everything in the States, our racism, sexism, and able-ism is inherent at the margins of our speech but not out and out direct. We be thinking it but are careful not to betray our true prejudices. Not so here, as access is very limited, Downs Syndrome is viewed as an affliction, and the acceptance is rare.
    Yer post stirred up me feelings about this. Thank ye fer posting. Peace be with ye.

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