A Shared Vulnerability

by David Morstad

There’s normal, and there’s not.  So we’ve been told.

Given the clues found in our language, you’d think it was just that simple.  Consider the number of times you have heard people without disabilities described as “healthy” or “normal” in contrast to having a disability. The truth is that people with intellectual disabilities face substantially similar health needs as the rest of the population and, while they certainly have individual differences and needs for support, most of their personal characteristics lie within the norms of human existence. In other words, as a group, most people with disabilities are both normal and healthy.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and we need to confront an uncomfortable reality.   Disability is more than just natural and normal.  Disability is us.

wc sketchWe all began our lives in a state of dependence and need for support; and, unless we die suddenly and young, we will all need support again one day.   It is estimated that one in five Americans has a recognized disability – some are apparent, others not.  Genetics, accidents, illness, environmental factors, the aging process, and a host of other unknown influences are pervasive in humankind. And those influences reach toward each of us.  We are all vulnerable.

In her essay Disability is Natural, writer and advocate Kathie Snow speaks to the normalcy of disability.  “There have always been people with disabilities in the world and there always will be,” Snow writes, “Like gender and ethnicity, disability is simply one of many natural characteristics of being human.  How can disabilities not be natural?  When we internalize the belief that disability is natural, and merge it with our common sense, we’ll create a new paradigm of disability.”

Perhaps one new paradigm involves coming to grips with our shared vulnerability.  Not people of greater power, ability and influence stooping to help people in lesser positions, but an honest relationship of equals, acknowledging our commonality and our community, vulnerable before the Creator and before one another. Dutch theologian and writer, Henri Nouwen observed, “When we honestly ask ourselves which people in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

Sharing pain.  Touching wounds.  Sharing vulnerability.

What shall we, the temporarily abled, learn from this?