These are some wise, wise words from Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Communities. As one who has worked with the less-abled for quite some time now, his insights into community have been invaluable. I strongly believe the following: those with disabilities have become a hidden population within our society and the Church has followed suit. In many ways, we have assumed influence comes from education and personal enlightenment. We have built communities where the voices, lives, and beauty of those who are seen as weak or are less-abled get relegated to our ministry life, but not our communal life. You are fine as the one we reach out to, but not as the ones we hold on to. Many factors go into this, but overall, in my experience, this has rung true. Vanier seems to agree.
Those who are weak have great difficulty finding their place in society. The image of the ideal human as powerful and capable disenfranchises the old, the sick, the less-abled. For me, society must, by definition, be inclusive of the needs and gifts of all its members; how can we lay claim to making an open and friendly society where human rights are respected and fostered when, by the values we teach and foster, we systematically exclude segments of our population?
I also believe that those we most often exclude from the normal life of society, people with disabilities, have profound lessons to teach us. When we do include them, they add richly to our lives and add immensely to our world.
Our society is geared to growth, development, progress. Life, for most of us, is a race to be won. Families are about evolution: at a certain stage, children are encouraged to leave home, get married, have children of their own, move on in their lives. But people with disabilities have no such future. Once they have reached a certain level of development, they are no longer expected or encouraged to progress. There is no ‘promotion’ for the disabled and what forward movement there is seems frequently to be either erratic or cruelly sped up: many move quite quickly from childhood to adulthood without passing through a period of adolescence; others age quickly. Our society is not set up to cope very well with people who are weaker or slower. More important, we are not skilled at listening to the wisdom of those whose life patterns are outside of the social norm.
There is a lack of synchronicity between our society and people with disabilities. A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.
Those who see the heart only as a place of weakness will be fearful of their own hearts. For them, the heart is a place of pain and anguish, of chaos and of transitory emotions. So they reject those who live essentially by their hearts, who cannot develop the same intellectual and rational capacities of others. People with intellectual abilities are excluded; it was never intended that they be included as equal partners with the powerful, you and me…We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favoured ones of God.
Other posts in this Lent series: