What do those with disabilities owe those without? Part 1

I am a blind person. Admittedly, beginning a piece with such a declaration seems odd. Blindness however plays a key role in my life. It has shaped me in many ways and has forced me to ask questions of myself that I might not otherwise ask. Having known what it feels like to be both under appreciated and over appreciated as a blind person, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how as a Christian I should respond properly.

Having known what it feels like to be both under appreciated and over appreciated as a blind person, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how as a Christian I should respond properly.

One of the questions I have asked and have tried to answer in general terms is: “What do those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities and vice versa? Asking this question might seem wrongheaded in a society, not unlike others, that tends to focus attention on the question: “how shall we best help those with disabilities? While this question is not out of place in all circumstances, it is tilted to one group’s responsibility without taking into account the other group’s need also to do its ethical duty.

There are two assumptions I take for granted that lead me to ask this question. The first assumption is that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore responsible agents who are to give and receive respect. Disability or not, every person shares the same stage on this score. The second assumption is that modern political thought, with its emphasis on the equality of every individual before the law and its belief that every individual is at the same time unique, I take to be correct in the main. With these two assumptions in mind, it seems right that my question should be posed. Again, what do those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities and vice versa?

Operative throughout this entire discussion is the Golden Rule, which states that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us.

The Debt of the Disabled

Operative throughout this entire discussion is the Golden Rule, which states that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us. There are cases in which this rule would be monstrous to apply. A mentally deranged person might in fact love pain and therefore wish to inflict it on others because this is how she wishes to be treated herself. Emphatically, such people should go out of their way not to keep the Golden Rule in that instant.

Patience

The first thing those with disabilities owe to those who do not have them is patience. Speaking from personal experience, it is too easy for those with disabilities to attribute evil motives to those who offer to help them or make a joke about one disability or another. Clearly, there are plenty of insensitive and cruel people, but the harboring of suspicion always magnifies evil motives and actions beyond a proper degree. Most of us do not like in fact to have our motives or actions denigrated as unkind or mean-spirited when we did not intend to be unkind or mean. Furthermore, it is too much to expect others to understand circumstances as well or better than those who are in them. To ask a person with perfect hearing or sight to understand the way a deaf or blind person respectively copes with life is to be unreasonable and is in fact a way for those with disabilities to alienate others rather than unite with them.

Conversation Starter

Secondly, those with disabilities owe to those without disabilities the willingness to be the conversation starter. When I was in high school, I had what was called an itinerant teacher, a teacher who spent a couple of hours with me a few days a week outside of the usual classroom setting in order to teach me things that were specific to blindness or help me find alternative ways to do mainstream assignments as a blind person. One day, she gave me an assignment that terrified me. She asked me to make an effort to start a conversation with the girl who sat next to me in my science class. It was already bad enough that as a fifteen-year-old boy, I was horrified by as well as attracted to girls, but being blind on top of that? And being forced to start a conversation? What if she ignored me? What if I get laughed at? She graded me on these kinds of assignments, so I had no choice unless I wanted both to provoke her wrath (always gentle but firm) and forgo getting a grade for something that didn’t require me to write anything. I did it, and it turned out fine. The girl talked back to me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t remember at all what we talked about, but I remember feeling good about the fact that I had done it.

The truth is that people are frightening. Honest examination of our motives and desires ought to convince us of this.

The truth is that people are frightening. Honest examination of our motives and desires ought to convince us of this. Knowing though that we are all frightening to each other at some level though can enable us to make the first move in a conversation rather than waiting for someone else to do it. If I really believe that I am a human created in God’s image and so equal to every other human being in worth and dignity, then do I really need to be afraid of others in the long run? Does my blindness need to be something of which I am ashamed if I see it as somehow the result of the plan of a sovereign God? (I haven’t said anything here about introverted people. This is because introversion is not a disability but a natural character trait. I by no means wish to suggest that everyone become extroverted and learn how to start conversations. Introverted people don’t typically start conversations, but their lack of doing so has little to do it seems to me with the reasons why so many people with or without disabilities for that matter avoid doing so).

Sense of Humor

Third, people with disabilities owe to those without them a healthy sense of humor. Allowing for temperamental differences, it is still the case that a sense of humor is, to borrow from Proverbs, a good medicine. Christians believe in any case that their best days are yet to come and that this life, while not diminished in its importance, is like a waiting room. If Christians believe this, it seems that a sense of humor is an appropriate response to a disability over which they have no control. Laughing at ourselves reminds us that we are ultimately not terribly important and liberates us from the burdens often accompanying our sense of self-worth, especially when that sense of self-worth about ourselves is not shared by others about ourselves.

Forgiveness

Lastly, those with disabilities owe others forgiveness. When I was converted to Christianity in my teens, I learned for the first time in my life that God commanded me to forgive those who had wronged me. This command has become central to my thinking and to my attempt to live the Christian life. As with waiting for someone else to start a conversation, it is easy, at least it is easy in my case, to wait for someone else to reach out to me with love and understanding before I reach out to them. On the other hand, making a habit of constantly entertaining a forgiving spirit makes it possible for me to be in a position to reach out first. It is true that insensitive people wrong us by giving a job to someone else when perhaps we were better qualified. But the reason we did not get the job happened to be because we were blind or in a wheelchair etc. Bitterness and resentment, though powerful temptations, are not an option for those who profess faith in Christ.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow, I’ll address the flip-side of this issue: “The Debt of the Abled.”

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This is the first in a two-part series on “What do those with disabilities owe those without?” The full article first appeared at the Reformation21 blog.