American Disability Act: Working Toward Welcome and Dignity for All

L'Arche marks its 50th anniversary bringing the message that all lives matter and all are welcome.

"His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (John 9:2-3).

"What's wrong with her?" the woman asked me as I helped my friend who has a disability wash her hands in the movie theater restroom. "Not a thing," I said. "What's wrong with you?"

This incident occurred in 1996 when I was living and working within a community of people with disabilities in the L'Arche Daybreak Community. I admit that the words I spoke to the woman in the restroom weren't kind. They were spoken in anger and frustration and just plain resentment of all the times I had dealt with such "ignorant" people - people who treated my friends with intellectual disabilities as if they were objects to be talked about instead of persons to be addressed, who pointed, or stared, or turned away in disgust because someone drooled, or made odd noises, or uncontrolled gestures.

I sometimes got similar questions about my younger sister Maria, who has cerebral palsy, when we were children: "What's wrong with her? Why does she walk like that?" Then, and later when I lived at the L'Arche Daybreak community outside Toronto, I usually tried to be polite, and factual, and use the interation as a teaching moment for the curious. But sometimes I just got sick of it. Maria, who is now a chaplain and writer and aspiring scholar of theology and disability, sometimes got sick of it too. Nobody sinned, okay?

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is responsible for the wheelchair icon in the convenient parking spaces, for the Braille numbers in the elevator, for the accommodations made for students with learning differences in the classroom, and for closed captioning on television. It has provided people with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities access to places and experiences that the majority of people in America take for granted. New York's Mayor Bill DeBlasio even declared July "Disability Pride Month" in the city. All of this is very much worth celebrating.

And yet, while people with disabilities have more access to opportunities and experiences than ever before, to assume that that ADA has remedied the problem of exclusion and prejudice against people with disabilities would be like assuming that the Civil Rights Act remedied racism. Such prejudices and the oppression they engender reach deep in to our hearts; they involve our deepest fears and insecurities.

As a psychotherapist and psychologist of religion, I have seen that what people fear we also reject and ultimately want to destroy. This can be either literally by violence or symbolically by belittling, marginalizing, or silencing whatever or whomever threatens us. People do this is in the misguided belief that by somehow neutralizing the threatening "other", we can maintain our security, power, and our sense of wholeness.

Of course, any sense we have of security, power and wholeness changes by the day and sometimes by the hour. We do a great job of building up our self-esteem based on these things, yet deep inside we know that they are illusions or something we wish to be true. When we interact with someone has a disability it often threatens this story we create about ourselves in order to move through life.

The truth is that anyone who could be called "able-bodied" (or "able-minded") could at the next minute be not so. Our physical and mental abilities are extraordinarily fragile, and in every sense temporary. Even in the absence of genetic, accidental, or illness-related disability, those who are "abled" now will know "disability" if they live long enough.

Perhaps that's what makes it so significant that the 25th anniversary of the ADA coincides with the 50th anniversary of L'Arche, an international network of 147 communities in 35 countries, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, grounded in the principles of mutuality, respect, and the unique value of every person. And with this anniversary also came the recognition of Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, with the honor of the Templeton Prize.

Vanier's message is both simple and radical: by daring to be in mutually vulnerable relationship, we find our humanity and create the conditions for a peaceful world where everyone has a place to belong.

It was this question of belonging that the disciples seem to be grappling with when they ask Jesus whose sin is responsible for the blindness of the man they encounter on the road. Where, in what category, should we put this blind man? Even those faithful followers of Jesus struggle to understand and rationalize the presence of difference, of "imperfection," and otherness from the norm. In their historical context these things were seen as a punishment for sin.

In the text, Jesus insists that it is not about sin, but "so that God's works might be revealed" in the blind man. We could easily interpret Jesus' words to mean that God's glory is revealed in the healing of the man, in Jesus' action of removing the disability. Yet this interpretation implies that the purpose of the man's blindness, in fact of his whole life, is to provide Jesus with a way to reveal the work of God by healing him. The God of this interpretation uses people as foils to reveal the divine glory - not such an appealing God in my book.

Instead, we could take the words of Jesus to mean just what they say - the reason that the man was born as he was, the reason the man was born at all, and the reason that any of us are born is to reveal and make known the work of God. Each of us do that whether we have disabilities or not.

The work of God is in the man's blindness, in my sister's cerebral palsy, in the personhood of those with an intellectual disability. God's divine work is revealed in our vulnerabilities, our doubts, and fears and insecurities. From this perspective, the very things that society considers undesirable (weakness, imperfection, vulnerability), become the means of revelation, just as they were in the person of Jesus on the cross.

These things are not sin nor are they evidence of sin. They are invitations to embrace the reality that each of us is a fragile human being - unique and precious and loved by a God, as St. Ignatius says, who is present in all things. If we can see the work of God revealed in the fragile and vulnerable person, just as he or she is, if we can see each human being as a manifestation of the work of God, that means that each of us has a piece of that work to do while we are on the earth together.

Jean Vanier's vision of vulnerability and acceptance goes far beyond valuing people with disabilities. It is a radical vision of how to create peace in the world. For Vanier, creating true peace requires that we face our fears - of the other, of our own weakness, of death - and become vulnerable.

Only by embracing our fears will we cease to be controlled by them, and be free to recognize every person as a revelation of the work of God.

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