Have you ever tried to look through the lens of those who are outwardly different? How about giving some reflection on what it might be like not to have the same abilities as a non-disabled person? Think about it for a moment. Oh, I know. You would prefer not to imagine this, but please go ahead and just try. If you are willing to continue, envision what it might be like for a person who was born without specific abilities? How are they treated? How about those who lose those abilities and become quite debilitated sometimes in body and then in mind? If you ask those who experienced loss later in life, they might share a couple of things: 1) You would not be surprised that they would acknowledge the devastation of becoming incapacitated. 2) The issue that you may not have thought about is loneliness, which can and often does ensue.
The dirty but sad secret is that many people do not wish to be around a disabled person.
Those good friends usually begin to disappear. Perhaps, these people would prefer to see life as a beautifully wrapped package with a bow topping it off. To see something less perfect is often untenable to many. Being around disabled people, which includes the debilitated, makes them uncomfortable. Consequently, avoidance, for many, is a rule of thumb. Welcome to the world of a forgotten population, the disabled.
How many of you know a disabled person? More appropriately, who is acquainted with one more than on a casual level? Well, I am and more than a couple of individuals. Several people know my background, but I am not here to discuss it except to say that I have had disabled people in my inner sphere most of my life.
The following people have been part of my circle either personally or professionally:
A woman whose appearance was similar to one with Down syndrome but in actuality has a high IQ. A middle-aged man who was a small-business owner, only to discover he had a chronic disease confining him to a wheelchair and walker. A thirty-one-year-old woman who is suffering from a genetic condition is in excruciating pain, and frequently bedridden. A seventeen-year-old athlete who attracted sponsors was injured and became a quadriplegic—finally, lovely, upbeat people who are plagued by autoimmune diseases out of the blue. I heard a story as recently as last week.
Several years ago, I had a friend who made it clear that she would never travel with my disabled family member. I was taken aback and did not know how to respond to this chilling declaration. At that time, I should have severed our connection, but for many reasons, I did not. In the next few years, her intolerance extended to other areas, which forced my hand to do what was finally necessary.
People are continually stating, we need to embrace differences, but as I wrote in two other articles (see below), certain ones do not seem significant. If we are talking intolerance and bias, we need to include those who often seem excluded—eradicating the disabled reverts back to ancient civilizations such as Sparta. During modernity, many so-called luminaries advocated eugenics. Many of us knew about the erstwhile hero, Margaret Sanger, long ago. Not until recently was she finally exposed for her eugenics philosophy toward blacks and the disabled. Hitler attempted the genocide of the Jewish population, but he began his view of eugenics with the disabled. Hitler’s authorization gave permission for the murder of 8000 disabled children by poisonous injections.
Sadly, some of my clients have shared with me stories of people who leave their spouses when a disabled child is born. Others have departed if their spouse becomes disabled. Now, some might argue that we have only one life and why be a martyr? I would vigorously debate that position because of the fickleness of life, but more about that in a few moments.
What about those who become debilitated from such horrific afflictions such as a stroke or slowly withering from a fatal disease?
Many people distance themselves from these-once-upon-a-time healthy people. About five years ago, I wanted to visit a dying colleague. My mother had died a few months earlier, and some of my protective friends/colleagues warned me about her appearance. I insisted on visiting. When I arrived, this colleague was almost unrecognizable and nonverbal but seemed to acknowledge me by the lifting of her eyebrows. As classical music played in the background, I began speaking. About what? I do not recall, but I was glad I made the trek, which so many other colleagues avoided. I did the same when a lovely friend of a relative suffered a massive stroke. The relative was surprised when I expressed that I wanted to see this friend. I responded that I could not imagine doing otherwise. I went to visit and could see her despondence around losing so much. Witnessing this severe debilitation haunted me for days.
As I share all of this, I am not saying look at me, but reminding those like me to think about the quote from the Book of Luke, ”to whom much is given, much is required.” For those of us blessed with good health, longevity, and zest, we must do more than talk the talk. I have read so much about having conversations, and I silently agreed with someone who said ”words, words, words.” What about action? How about taking time not to avoid but push through discomfort in spending time with the afflicted? Remember, life can be most unpredictable. At any time, the forgotten ones could include you and me, and that is something that should never be forgotten.
I invite you to share your thoughts about this most but overlooked ”ism.”
More in this Series: