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franciscan - May 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Make level paths for my feet

by Tom Shakespeare

How can I share the experience of disability with those who are not disabled? Indeed, is there one disability experience, or are there as many as there are disabled individuals? There are 450 million disabled people in the world – over six million in Britain. And while there may only be two genders, there are thousands of impairments, and many variations in the disability experience.

Can I, born with restricted growth, speak for another who may have developed a degenerative condition such as MS, or had an accident leading to spinal injury?

In the health and caring professions, it is very common to receive training in these matters, which may take one of two forms. Disability Awareness Training is about exploring the experience of having an impairment: it may involve sitting in a wheelchair for a while, or putting on spectacles to simulate visual impairment. It suggests that “people with disabilities” are a group whose bodies or minds function differently, and it is this deficit which we have to understand, in order to develop empathy.

Those in the political movement of disabled people take a different view. They would offer Disability Equality Training, based on the understanding that disabled people face discrimination and prejudice in society. “Disabled people” are a group who face physical barriers to participation; who experience ignorance and hostility; who are four times as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people; who are segregated in education, housing, transport and many other fields. That is to say, people with impairment are disabled by society, not by their bodies. Therefore we need anti-discrimination legislation, and other equal opportunities initiatives.
Of course, the disability experience is about both physical limitation and social exclusion. And disabled people are a group with shared experiences, but also a cluster of individual men and women with very different ways of being and feeling. Too often, these feelings are of inadequacy or unhappiness. While we cannot do much to change impairment, we can do much to challenge these feelings of being inferior or “in-valid”. Part of this is about showing that the major problems faced by disabled people are to do with the society and environment in which they live, not the difficulties presented by having an impairment. Moreover, disabled people are equal to every other person in society, and deserve equal rights, respect, and citizenship. Many of the most prominent human beings - amongst them Saint Bernadette, Hildegard of Bingen, Marcel Proust, F D Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Ludwig von Beethoven, Florence Nightingale and Winston Churchill - had physical or mental impairments.

Part of the problem is that we tend to divide society into sheep and goats - we identify and separate out the disabled. A Canadian term, “temporarily able-bodied”, shows the inaccuracy of a rigid separation. After all, everyone could develop an impairment, as a result of disease, accident or genetics. Moreover, we all experience the limitations of our bodies, whether in the form of temporary illnesses and impairments (a broken leg, a bout of ‘flu), or in the realisation that we will never run one hundred metres in ten seconds, or climb Everest or master the flute. Physical ability forms a continuum, not a dichotomy.

It is my view that the polar separation between “disabled people” and “able-bodied people” masks the inability of most human beings to confront the reality of their physical frailty and ultimate mortality. Since Descartes, we in the West have distinguished mind from body, and located our potential, our individuality, our humanity and our uniqueness in the former. For the rationalist, it is the mind which separates humans from animals. This hubristic dichotomy may explain why it is that disabled people have faced prejudice and exclusion: flawed, vulnerable, less human, more mortal, disabled people have been the uncomfortable reminders of the bodily limitations and physical frailties of humanity, and have consequently been ignored and demeaned.

Most religious traditions have done little to challenge these negative attitudes. Often, impairment is the result of parental sin, or the punishment for wrong-doing. In Leviticus we read of the uncleanliness of disabled people. Disability is often used as a metaphor: the figure of Job uses impairment to demonstrate the nobility of suffering and the need for patience. In Jeremiah, blindness connotes inner vision and prophetic seeing. In the New Testament, Jesus demonstrated his status through performing miracles, most of which concerned disabled people, leaving a legacy to be exploited by evangelists such as Morris Cerrullo, and superstitions such as Lourdes. It is my view that none of these approaches to disability can offer much to people living with impairment and the disabling effects of society.

What, then, is a spiritual approach to living with disability? I would rather seek what unites us, than what divides us. We are all God’s creatures, and I would like to seek the acceptance of all people, however physically or mentally capable or incapable, and the valuing of difference, rather than the imposition of a single normality. We are all impaired, and I would seek to recognise the frailty and suffering of every human being, rather than focus on the particular problems of disabled people. We are all flawed human beings, even if this is sometimes not apparent at first glance. As one singer has put it, “The one thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside.”

Disabled people are not put in this world as convenient props through which others can demonstrate their faith-healing abilities, public-spiritedness or Christian charity. So many times, those who set out to help, end up hindering, because they fail to listen to the person who is the recipient of their assistance, or because their altruism is actually about self-interest or self-aggrandisement. As Tolstoy wrote: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”

It is important to recognise that we are all inter-dependent: we all require help from others, and mutual aid is the pillar of a good society. Disabled people also may require and value assistance, but the greatest help of all is acceptance and respect.
One of the things which living with impairment may bring is an understanding of our limitations, and a sense of humility: indeed, many spiritual people, including St. Francis, have recognised that physical restrictions may concentrate the mind on the important things in life. Moreover, the personal experience of impairment may bring empathy for the difficulties of others. However, I would not like it to be thought that disabled people are particularly noble, saintly, brave, holy or virtuous: we are just the same as everyone else, and we can be equally bad-tempered, miserable, argumentative and irritating.

As you will have gathered, I am not one who places much store by miracle cures. I would rather see people focus on removing the social barriers – the poverty, the prejudice, the paternalism – which blight the lives of disabled people. In an accepting social environment, people with impairment will be much better able to cope with their bodies, and achieve their potential as human beings. St Paul succinctly summarised the appropriate response to disability, when he wrote, “Make level paths for your feet so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed.” (Hebrews 12.13). f

Dr Tom Shakespeare is a research fellow at the University of Leeds, and author of The Sexual Politics of Disability. A long-time friend of SSF, his brother James is a member of the Third Order.

 

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