Disability: The Gift That Keeps On Giving?

I was intrigued when I found out that Pope Francis planned to address disability. Historically, religious institutions have treated disabled people as angelic gifts from God, meant to represent innocence; living examples created to inspire love and compassion; or burdensome, cursed individuals who must be either healed immediately or cast out. Whichever viewpoint I analyze, it’s clear to me that none of these depictions of disability is accurate, and they are all potentially dangerous.

The “Cool Pope” disappointed me, however, when he placed himself firmly in the “gifts from God” camp. There goes progress, I thought. I’m not part of any religious institution anymore, but that has not limited my exposure to this ideology. Plenty of nonreligious people believe our disabilities are gifts—to the world, if not to us—which are meant to inspire goodness in other humans, and to foster special strength when fighting adversity. The idea, it seems, is that while disability is undoubtedly difficult and certainly not ideal, we’re given it for some mystical, predetermined reason, and our purpose in life is to function as a blessing to the world through our unique perspectives and commendable fortitude. People appear to subscribe to this belief whether they believe in a specific God, a nebulous higher power, or nothing at all.

You might think this is a refreshing change from the disability-is-universally-terrible myth, but it’s not much of a respite when you examine it closely enough. Once again, the ideology of disability perpetuated by able-bodied people dehumanizes us, placing us on either a higher or lower plain, depending on your perspective. Some would say higher, because we’re blessed with special powers of endurance, and what’s not flattering about being considered a “gift” to all the world? Some, like me, would consider the plain lower, because I find the viewpoint disturbingly backward. Disability is not written in the stars; or, at the very least, it is not usually inexplicable. People are disabled because of injury, disease, genetic disorders and so on, not because their destiny is to function as a living advertisement for the virtues of compassion. Believing that my disability was given to me for some mysterious purpose I am called to fulfill is a very heavy load to bear. My disability is neither a gift nor a curse; it just is. What I do with it is mine to decide.

I know it’s comforting to think of my blindness as something positive, and it does have its upsides (though I’d argue that I’d face plenty of hard times without it and could learn most of the same skills if I were sighted). This comfort is false and cold, though, especially since I’m not bettering the lives of others by default. Each time my blindness gets in my way—prevents me from finding employment, subjects me to discrimination, hinders me in all the ways it does—I don’t glow with purpose or rest in the knowledge that suffering is part of my destiny. What I do is get on with it.

As I’ve said many, many times now, I don’t spend my life feeling miserable or bitter. Genetics do what they do. That doesn’t give me or anyone else license to pretend that disability isn’t negative, though. I don’t subscribe to the concept of disability being some kind of transcendent experience or perk. It’s something I work around–largely because of the world’s attitudes and not because of my broken eyes themselves–but it’s not something I’m proud of.

So, next time you want to placate a disabled person—or the loved ones of disabled people—by insisting that disability is a divine gift, stop and think about what that might mean. Getting rid of this misconception is just one more way I can be thought of as fully human: flawed, but equal.

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4 thoughts on “Disability: The Gift That Keeps On Giving?

  1. Ugh, the disabled person as angel or some grandiose lesson for ordinary slobs is as sickly sweet as the pathetic moper, it’s still othering and it’s still wrong. No, I am here to live my own life, tell my own tale and be an individual, my story does not intersect with anyone else’s unless I choose it. I’m not here to teach anyone about anything unless it might be about good coffee, bad movies and weird music amongst other things. Y’all are on your own as regards how to treat others, you still gotta work at it and work at it hard, this is not why I exist.

  2. I think Pope Francis was going for the fact that we can use any trait God gives us for good, and that suffering of any kind can bring us closer to God because it helps us remember how much He suffered for us. He’s only saying that disability is a uniquely visible form of suffering, not that disabled people are inherently holier or a special blessing.

    As for the reasons for disability being scientifically apparent, we could argue all day about exactly how God makes things happen. If I write a story and decide to make one of my characters have a genetic disorder, that doesn’t mean it necessarily appeared out of nowhere. I would just write the disorder into the character’s genetic history, with the parents carrying recessive alleles. I exist outside the time of the story, so I can write something into the back story so it will happen in the main story. I know what will happen at all points of the story, so I can jump around inserting plot points to ensure that the outcome will occur. In the same way, God exists outside time and can set the genetic wheels turning generations ahead of time so that all the elements of our lives will appear to have coincided purely by natural causes and coincidence. But just as my foreknowledge of all events in my story doesn’t prevent my characters from taking on a life of their own—a phenomenon we hear authors talk about all the time—God’s omniscience doesn’t take away our free will. Why would God create the world, all its laws and mechanics, and then not use them? Trying to find God explicitly in nature is like trying to find Shakespeare explicitly in Hamlet.

    Maybe I’m cynical, but it sounds as though you’d feel dehumanized no matter what the pope said. And I know how you feel: I’m just as sick of being singled out as a blind person as you are, and I’d rather have people just think of me as a person. I’m tired of the idea that we’re paragons of patience and serenity and beacons of hope to the whole world. But all Pope Francis was saying was that the crosses we carry are just more visible than other people’s, and that their visibility can (operative word being can, as in, if we choose to let them) help other people take up their own crosses daily. You’re right: your disability just is, and all that matters is what you do with it. But that applies to every characteristic, physical or mental, of every human being on the planet.

  3. praying for people can sometimes be offensive to those of us who are not believers in god or any religion. we are all human and we choose to live our lives as we see fit and any decision we like to make we hope we can make it ourselves without others trying to dictate.

  4. People have the tendency to put the best face possibly on any situation they find themselves in. To do otherwise would lead to insufferable melancholia. In this vein, I have often reflected on how vision loss is not all bad. It’s not something I would have chosen, but I do think it has affected my outlook on life, and humanity, in a generally positive, and spiritual, way. So long as this is my thought, I am comfortable with it. If someone else, especially someone who’s not experienced vision loss, offers up this remark, I bristle. I somehow feel entitled to this sentiment; but if an outgrouper tries to foist it upon me, I feel violated. I suspect this is how most PWDs feel about the issue.

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