Alvar Cawen, 1926
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.
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?
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.
To proceed then: 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.
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 forego 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. 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).
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.
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.
The Debt of the Abled
The first thing those without disabilities owe to those with them is dignified
treatment. This means that pity is often not one's first best response when
confronted with someone with a disability. Pity or compassion is a fine thing
but not for example when a blind person is capable of doing a job and out of
pity you forego giving him the responsibility because the job is too strenuous.
Furthermore, compassion is often a disguised form of guilt. I feel bad that I
don't have a disability and this other person over here does. Guilt then is
translated into pity rather than dignified treatment. Compassion unchecked can
often be a disguise for someone with a superiority complex. I'm better than this
person over here with a disability, and so I will pity her even though I know in
my heart that well, perhaps she deserves this disability.
Secondly, those with disabilities are owed trust. Practically, this means that a
person with a disability knows better than anyone else what her capabilities
are. Going back to the beginning of this piece, I said that too often, the
question about how to help those with disabilities is raised before one has
carefully considered whether they really need help or not. The best way to find
out what those with disabilities need is to ask THEM. Of course, when first
meeting someone with a disability, the first thing to say is hello. Many times,
the question of help need not arise. People often are willing to tell you what
they need especially when what they need is integral to their ability to
function. To ask someone you don't know if she needs help is to put her in an
awkward spot. "What am I doing that makes it look like I need help? Assuming
capability until proven incompetent is best and safest.
Asking the question: What do those with disabilities owe to those without
disabilities and vice versa? Is a way to start a necessary conversation. For one
thing, the question makes it clear that both groups of people owe something to
the other. It is not a one-sided situation. Treating this issue as if all
burdens of responsibility ought to be placed on what I will call the "abled"
group intentionally or unintentionally fosters a custodial mentality and often
resentment on the part of those who help. Framing the question in the way that I
have places ownership on everyone to do their part in seeing that those with and
those without disabilities are treated as fairly by one another as possible.
June 5, 2014
Cody Dolinsek is working towards a PhD with Southwestern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Fort Worth TX.
This piece was originally presented at Faith Bible College and Theological
Seminary in Ankeny Iowa. A prior piece about Cody can be found at
Maria José Alegre