Learning from the Handicapped
Posted August 23, 2009on:
Last week, my wife and I visited the Ashish Centre, a school for children with learning disabilities, in the Indian capital Delhi. The school was the brainchild of a friend of ours, Geeta, who herself has an autistic fourteen-year old son, Samarpan. Disability carries a powerful social stigma in Indian society. Parents, rich and poor, “dump” their children in helpless frustration at the Centre, hoping that Geeta and her fellow teachers (mostly volunteers) can work a miracle “cure”.
And miracles do happen. But not in the way the parents expected. Their own hearts are transformed by love as they see the way the teachers patiently draw out the unexpected potentialities of these children. Children who, hitherto, were locked away in their homes out of sight of visitors are now unashamedly treated as equal members of the family. Despite this, the school remains desperately underfunded. Like governments elsewhere, the Indian government pours a disproportionate amount of money into elite schools and universities, while proclaiming its commitment to protecting human rights and human dignity.
I asked Geeta what she has learned from children like Samarpan. Her face glowed as she responded immediately, “They teach us to be real. There is no pretense or vanity, they don’t wear masks like we so-called ‘normal’ people do. And in being brutally honest with us, they force us to be honest with ourselves.” She added, “I have learned through him what is really important in life and what is simply trivial.”
Rarely do the disabled command our respect. Unless of course they happen to be a Beethoven, a Helen Keller or a Stephen Hawking. But here the respect is not for them as humans, but for their almost superhuman abilities at overcoming all odds. Usually the handicapped embarrass us. We want to banish them from sight, either by killing them (if the law permits) or by putting them in remote institutions. Or else we try to make them “fit”, by trying to make them conform to our norms of success.
“Political correctness” dictates that we stop using words like “handicapped” and “disabled”, and replace them with “differently abled”. If this is meant to remind us of their essential and equal humanness, it is to be welcomed. But it also serves to perpetuate the popular but mistaken belief that human personhood is something we possess or achieve by virtue of our abilities. But Christians insist that while natures are what we have, persons are who we are. Disabled persons have damaged human natures; but the rest of us are damaged in other, deeper and more dangerous, ways.
I suggest that the handicapped among us present an uncomfortable challenge to our modern illusions of individual self-sufficiency and human perfectibility. The handicapped hold up a mirror to our own frailty, vulnerability and inter-dependence as a human community. That is the truth about the human condition. But in our will to power, we see vulnerability as weakness and inter‑dependence as constraint. We equate freedom with self-gratification, limits with oppression. We see our lives as belonging to ourselves alone.
Unfortunately, our mortality makes a mockery of our pretension to be gods. This is probably why so many doctors in our hospitals run away from talking about death with their patients. As long as modern medical practitioners think of themselves as wonder-workers, and of their work as one of human engineering rather than alleviating human suffering wherever possible, they will always think of handicap and death as “failure”.
But what of their own death? Or even the loss of their skills, say in a serious accident‑ will they still command respect as humans? The handicapped force us to face such issues that lie at the heart of human existence. How we relate to the most vulnerable and defenceless among us may be a measure of our own humanness, as individuals and as a society.
“Contemplation gazes in the eyes
of nature’s accident, a malformed child.
How can this monstrous sadness still be styled
Human? This surely must epitomize
Those anguished questions that defy the wise.
‘Look,’ some say, by sentiment beguiled,
‘The soul peeps out’. Absently it smiled,
No eye contact, inert- and vain hope dies.
And yet this passive form cries out in pain,
Hungers for basic needs and pants for breath.
Humanity lies there: we’re all the same-
Vulnerable and frail, defying death.
Helplessness the image of God reveals.
Like salt rubbed in the wound, affliction heals.”
- Frances Young, Face to Face: a Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering, (T & T Clark, 1990)