Interlude – “special” people
Sometimes I see parents, educators, and others who love and work with disabled people (and especially disabled children) refer to those people with disabilities as “special” in some religious or spiritual sense. This notion has been around a long time: there is evidence that in many cultures and faiths, dating back beyond recorded history, people with epilepsy, schizophrenia, and many other physical and neurological differences, have been worshipped, revered, seen as having a unique connection to the divine, etc..
These days, I most often see people referring to autistic children, for example, as lessons to others, or as having special spiritual qualities, or being more angelic than other children, and so on. I know it is meant well, but there are problems with this viewpoint. While I certainly prefer this opinion to the notion that disabled people are worthless, burdens, disposable, or even a threat to the future of humanity (as many eugenicist still argue, despite ample counter-evidence from the biological sciences), I still feel the need to speak against it. Here’s why:
1) It puts a lot of pressure on the person in question, whether child or adult. Not only do they have to deal with being stared at, avoided, pitied, and misunderstood, but in addition to that, they are expected to behave in a way that is beyond reproach. In reality, however, children with disabilities get cranky, misbehave, and have bad days. People with disabilities can be as mean or petty as anyone else. They get angry and sad and jealous and selfish, just like anyone else.
2) This leads me to the second point, which is that, no matter how big the differences in how they look, think, function physically, or communicate, people with disabilities are more like everyone else than different, and they deserve to be treated as such. To consider them otherwise — even in a reverential way — is to do them a grave disservice.
I don’t usually express myself in religious terminology, but if I were to do so, here is what I would say: People with disabilities are neither angels nor demons, neither possessed by evil nor unusually touched by the divine. They are human beings, and like all of us they have hopes and fears, dreams and dreads, petty concerns and big questions. The life of an autistic child is no more nor less sacred than anyone else’s. No people with disabilities should be placed above or below the rest of us. They are simply people– all individuals, all with the potential to do great or terrible or mediocre things with their lives, but no better or worse than any other person simply by virtue of being disabled.
3) One more point: sometimes, those who love disabled people see how much they suffer and struggle, and feel that it is only fair that in return for this undeserved pain, they must be given some kind of gift as well. Most of us know, somewhere in our hearts, that life is rarely fair, but this doesn’t make it any easier for us to understand why some children should be born into lives that are so much tougher than others. Our world can be a cruel one: children are born into war, into poverty, into families that will hurt them, or into bodies that must work so much harder to keep up with others.
But to see disability as inherently tragic is also to do a disservice to the disabled. The fact that disabled children are more likely than others to be abused and abandoned is a societal problem, not a fault of disability. The fact that so many people with disabilities end up poor, uneducated, and struggling to support themselves is also a fault of the world they live in, not the body or brain they were born with.
Some disabilities cause physical pain, it is true. But far more often, they pain they cause is emotional– and avoidable. Some disabilities result in a shorter life, it is true. But very few disabilities necessarily result in a lower quality of life. Don’t take my word for that, please, and don’t take it for granted that I am obviously wrong. Instead, listen to the only people who can truly answer that question one way or another: those who have spent their lives being disabled.
If we truly want to respect and help people with disabilities, we should not see their disabilities as inevitable burdens and pray that they be compensated accordingly. Rather, we should all work for a world in which the disabled are truly included and accepted, a world in which being disabled does not carry stigma or cause undue hardship. Every human being deserves respect, care, and a fair chance to make the very best of the life they live. And until we offer these things to every person in equal measure, we should not look to any power beyond ourselves.