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.