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.