by David Morstad
We think in enlightened ways. We celebrate people with disabilities as equal citizens among us and as beautiful expressions of God’s diverse kingdom; and we declare disability to be a natural part of the human experience.
But then, there’s the way we talk.
Years ago, my mother, like many others, was fond of the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” My mother is a dear soul and I am certain this was an innocent reminder to herself to be grateful for the gifts of her own abilities, but that is not the way it was stated. Rather, it was a statement of gratitude that she was not like that other person, and that the favor of God was somehow responsible for it. One might wonder why the grace of God was not extended to the individual she was referencing.
As linguist, Steven Pinker astutely explains (in a handy little TED talk), all language is ‘thought language’. Our words reveal much about how we think; and what they often reveal in this case, is that we still think of disability largely as a tragedy.
How often have we heard expectant parents tell us that they don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, “as long as it’s healthy”? It doesn’t take long to realize what “healthy” in this context really means. Parent and writer, Sarah Watts, takes on that phrase by asking, what if it’s not?
“When we say ‘as long as it’s healthy,’ we’re negating all the unlimited potential we have as human beings”, Watts writes, “And when we say, ‘as long as it’s healthy,’ we’re telling parents that our support as a society is conditional. Have a healthy baby, and you’re golden. Come back from your ultrasound with a special needs diagnosis, and we’ll need to start discussing your options.”
Language also gives us away when we declare parents of children with disabilities to be particularly courageous. In a 2013 blog post, Ellen Seidman writes,
“When people admire me or Dave for the simple act of parenting Max, it makes me hyper-aware that they think it must be so tough—a burden, even—to parent a child with special needs. Considering parents of kids with special needs to be saints overestimates us, and underestimates our children.”
All that said, I still believe there is a strong link between disability and tragedy in our contemporary culture, just not in the way most people think. Limited access to appropriate education and adequate healthcare is tragic. Lack of affordable housing and gainful employment is tragic. The continued existence of the Judge Rotenberg Center alone is tragedy enough for a lifetime – but more about them in another post. The thing about these tragedies, however, is that they are owned by the not-yet-disabled. Us. They are tragedies of our greater community, and our community can choose to act.
Does the grace of God protect us from disability? Or, rather, does it empower us to stride boldly into advocacy and relationship?