Did you know that tomorrow is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities? Since 1992, December 3rd has been designated by the United Nations as a special day that "aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the rights, dignity and well-being of persons with disabilities -- including children. It also celebrates the benefits for the whole society when persons with disabilities are included in every aspect of life."
It's this second sentence that is really important in my books, can you tell? What a world it would be if everyone was celebrated for their presence and innate gifts! Valued just because they are who they are! And included as much as possible in everything! Imagine!
I know I'm preaching to the converted (again), but for the average able-bodied person who has never given much thought to what it might be like to be have a disability, meeting someone with a disability might seem a bit intimidating for any number of reasons. From my own experience, I suspect that the main reason is that folks with disabilities are "different" or other. But how different are they, really??
My first experience with a person with a disability was with my Uncle Louis. His gentle presence showed me that disability is not something to be feared, but a uniqueness that helps us to become more aware of our own fragility, and to see and welcome the special gifts possessed by each person we meet. Of course, when I was small, he was just a fun and funny uncle.
When I reached university age, I took a summer job at a camp for people with disabilities, thinking I'd put my teaching skills into practice helping others. That's where I learned that most people with disabilities don't necessarily want my help -- they're more interested in my friendship!
Though I had learned some basic lessons from my Uncle Louis, I remember feeling anxious and even a bit scared when Camp He Ho Ha had its week for people with severe disability. As the campers came off the bus in wheelchairs and walkers and helmets and with more different kinds of paraphernalia than I had ever imagined in my life, I felt rather intimidated by the idea that I was to look after some of them in a rather intimate way for the next five days. What if I did something wrong? Said something stupid? But they were patient, showing me what I needed to know by word or gesture, repeating things many times if necessary. Looking back through the years, I see how their compassion taught me a deeper compassion. They were the teachers; I was the student.
Unfortunately, quite often, our sisters and brothers with disabilities are treated as though they are invisible -- likely because too many of us have bought into the super-independence and self-reliance demanded by our culture, and find it hard even to acknowledge those who, by necessity, are dependent on others to help them function. It's as though we are embarrassed by just the idea of disability, and hope that if we ignore it, it will go away.
But that kind of attitude impoverishes the whole world. Every human being God created possesses an innate beauty and goodness, and that goodness truly manifests itself in mutual relationship. As we give, we also receive, and that is never more true than in relationship with persons with disabilities. They have a very special gift to offer -- a vulnerability that touches our own vulnerability and brings us to a place where our career, status, wealth or ability are not the most important thing about us. We learn from them that our value lies not in what we can do, but in our presence to others, in the way we reflect to others the spark of love God put in our souls to begin with.
I could go on and on, but I already have. Today's Simple Suggestion is a wee challenge -- a blessing in disguise, perhaps -- and an opportunity to overcome our fear of difference to discover that, deep inside, we are all the same. We only want to love and be loved. Our friends with disabilities understand that better than most. And who among us doesn't need more friends?
So, do yourself a favour -- make someone with a disability smile today... and let friendship grow.
In celebration of tomorrow's International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I'll leave you with a beautiful little gift -- click here to view to a wonderful new documentary about Jean Vanier and L'Arche. Enjoy!
P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Click here.