by David Morstad
“…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Do justice. That’s what the prophet said. Not learn to recognize justice, proclaim justice, or simply long for justice. Do justice.
Aristotle knew it as well. We ought not pursue what is right simply “to know what virtue is,” he wrote, “ but to become good.”
Do something. Change something. Be something. Easier said than done.
These days, the national attention in the US has turned toward the race conversation, and there is good reason for that. To whatever extent people choose to acknowledge it, power and privilege are an ever-present undercurrent influence in our lives. The parallels of civil rights and disability rights ought to be of interest to us, if for no other reason, than they share a common plot line.
The stories of disability history and civil rights history both seem to follow this pattern: It begins with one group thinking another group is inferior – perhaps even something less than fully human – and this is followed by the inevitable segregation and exploitation. At some point, there rises from the group a voice of protest (call it self-advocacy), strengthened by laws that are both a product of national sentiment and instruments for national change. Finally, reality sets in – the fight is never really won. The battle is long, maybe even never-ending. This is the US civil rights story. It is also the US disability rights story. And it is nothing recent.
We get some idea of just how long the arc that bends toward justice can be by looking at one notable figure in history, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. In the 19th Century, he was a fierce abolitionist on the issue of slavery, and an equally fierce disability advocate. Howe was the first superintendent of the New York State Institution for the Blind but, oddly enough, he felt strongly that the facility should not have been built in the first place. “Beware how you needlessly sever any of those ties of family, of friendship, of neighborhood,” he wrote, “lest you make a homeless man, a wanderer and a stranger.” He was a bold prophet in his own right, and he wasn’t done yet. At the cornerstone laying ceremony, he spoke these words:
“We should be cautious about establishing such artificial communities…for any children and youth; but more especially should we avoid them for those who have natural infirmity…Such persons spring up sporadically in the community, and they should be kept diffused among sound and normal persons…As much as may be, surround insane and excitable persons with sane people and ordinary influences; vicious children with virtuous people and virtuous influences; blind children with those who see; mute children with those who speak; and the like…” 1
Finding an advocate for community integration today is nothing special, but finding one in 1866 is simply astounding. It’s possible to say two things about the words Howe spoke that day: First, they were unpopular among those assembled; second, they were necessary to speak. Those two factors often seem to define truth. And when it comes to truth, people of faith are called to do more than just know. We are called to do. We do justice knowing it will be difficult and unpopular.
1 Samuel Gridley Howe, Address Delivered at the Ceremony of Laying the Corner-stone of the New York State Institution for the Blind at Batavia, Walker, Fuller & Company, 1866