“Differently-Abled”

I woke up this morning after an extraordinarily unpleasant dream in which my right arm had been surgically removed at some point in the indefinite past (for some medical reason or another) and my left arm was about to be removed (for the same reason, whatever it was).

I have no idea where that came from.  (Some of my critics will, doubtless, be able to come up with a satisfyingly demeaning pop-psychoanalytic explanation, but I’ll leave that to them.)  I’ve never before had such a dream.

Anyway, it was wonderful to wake up and realize that I still have two fully functioning arms.  I tend, on the whole, to take them for granted.

In my immediately preceding post, I mentioned my participation in a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in Berkeley, California, way back in 1990.

One of my distinct memories from that experience is of a meeting on the first day with one of the deans at the Graduate Theological Union, adjacent to the University of California campus, which was hosting our little group.  She helpfully went through a whole host of practical matters for us, including housing and meals and, though all of us had just walked with her over to her office, instructions on wheelchair accessibility for those of us unable to walk.

I excused that as auto-pilot stuff, probably required by some federal regulation or institutional rule or other, even when it was obviously unnecessary in our particular case.

But what really struck me was the language in which she described wheelchair ramps, elevators, and the like.  As she put it, she was addressing “those of you who are differently-abled.”

I had never heard the term differently-abled before.  Ever.  But she pronounced it easily, several times, in passing.  Without giggling.

It struck me, then as now, as sublimely stupid even if well-intended.  Political correctness carried to heights of blithering idiocy.

A person who is blind — as my father was, shockingly and suddenly, for the last several difficult and sad years of his life — can’t see.  But being blind simply disables that person.  It doesn’t “differently able” that person.  Beyond, perhaps, encouraging slightly more sensitive hearing or touch, it doesn’t confer substantial new ability on the person.  Somebody who can’t hear doesn’t develop a compensatory ability to fly, say, or to read minds, or to pass through solid walls, or to understand Hegel.

A loss is a loss.  However regrettable, no major faculty that’s lost is replaced by another one.  We have five senses, of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste.  If we lose one of them, there is, typically, no menu of alternate senses from which we get to choose a substitute.

Now, this may seem to conflict with the theme I’ve been sounding over the past week or so, about the possibility of good emerging from bad.  There is, however, no contradiction.  A major loss of physical ability may help, for instance, to create character in the victim and/or in those around her.  Good can come out of it.  But it’s still a major loss of physical ability.

I understand that there are not a few out there who have lost sight, hearing, an arm, a leg, the ability to walk, and so forth.  Such things are not to be minimized.  They’re genuine trials and obstacles.

I’m delighted to have two serviceable arms that culminate in two functioning hands.  My life would be very different without them.

And I’m grateful.  It’s odd that I haven’t really been grateful for them before, but now, since my dream, and at least for the short time in which it’s going to linger powerfully in my consciousness, I am.

Perhaps we ought to think more about the very basic things that we take for granted.  Family, friends, home, eyes, hands.  Air.  Drinkable water.  And, even if we’re missing one or more of those, most of us still have very much to be thankful for.  (Except for the last two things.  If we’re missing either of those, we’re dead.  Or soon will be.)


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