By Amy Julia Becker
“Disability is a magnifying glass that shows us our humanity.”
My husband spoke these words eleven years ago, when our daughter Penny was a few months old. Penny had been diagnosed with Down syndrome a few hours after her birth, and the months that followed were hard for us. She had a few little holes in her heart. She needed tubes in her ears. She needed early intervention services. Her future seemed uncertain. She also slept through the night at seven weeks, lavished smiles upon anyone in view, and worked hard at everything from sitting up to walking. She was broken, and beautiful, and beloved. Just like us.
It took much prayer, rereading Scripture, and the experience of loving this child for me to understand that the words beautiful and broken, vulnerable and gifted, described both Penny and me.
In this week’s lectionary text, both the disciples and the Pharisees remind me of myself before I knew Penny. They encounter a “man born blind,” and instead of seeing him as a person, they see him as an object, a lesson to be learned, a morality play to be performed. First, the disciples observe this man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned?” They equate physical disability with moral imperfection and punishment. The Pharisees hone in on Jesus’ apparent violation of Sabbath law by healing this man on a day of rest. But no one does what Jesus does. Neither the disciples nor the Pharisees actually see the human being in their midst. Their treatment of the man born blind exposes their own inability to see.
The history of people with disabilities in the United States follows a similar course. People with both physical and intellectual disabilities have been denied access to health care and education and even spiritual care for centuries. They have experienced physical suffering and social isolation. The general population has suffered the loss of their presence among us, even if we have failed to notice their absence.
Meanwhile, communities like L’Arche have borne witness to the ways our full humanity—in its neediness and its glory—comes forth when typically developing people and people with intellectual disabilities live together. In L’Arche founder Jean Vanier’s words, “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help… those who are weak and in need have a secret power to touch our hearts and to bring us together in mutual belonging, whatever our religion or culture.”
We are seeing some of the same fruit of reciprocal relationships in our own family and community. Forty years ago, our daughter Penny would not have been guaranteed a public education. Now, she attends our local public school and learns among her typically-developing peers. She is reading chapter books and adding fractions and learning about the scientific method. More significantly, she is going away with a friend from school this weekend, and I have asked her “Prayer Buddy” at church to pray for that time. Penny enjoys her life, and the people around her enjoy her for her particular gifts and in the midst of her particular vulnerabilities.
On the day that President Trump took office, the White House website underwent a transformation. President Obama’s website had a page dedicated to people with disabilities. President Trump’s does not. This change is not merely cosmetic, but a reflection of this new administration’s priorities. On February 9, 2016, Trump claimed his personal commitment to people with disabilities on Twitter: “no one has done more for people with disabilities than me.” However, in recent weeks, the Trump administration has sought to deregulate education and health care laws that protect some of our most vulnerable students and citizens. Once again, we are in danger of pushing people with disabilities out of view.
It took me a while to be able to see Penny instead of her diagnosis and the list of potential problems she would encounter. When I thought of her in terms of Down syndrome, I thought of her as separate from me. But once I was able to see her—her bright smile and sparkling eyes, her love for reading, her tender concern for other people—then I also began to see how connected we were. Of course we shared a genetic and social connection, but as I understood the fullness of Penny’s humanity I began to see our spiritual connection. I started to believe that even though I was able to hide my vulnerability, it was present in me, and if I had the courage to expose it to others, I would enter more fully into my own humanity. If I became willing to expose my needs, I opened myself to receiving love. And as I started to receive love from people like my daughter, people whose gifts are not always valued by our culture, I started to believe that every human being has gifts to offer, if only we have eyes to see.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus affirmed the full humanity of this man born blind by treating him with the same compassion and respect that he treated everyone around him. Our charge, and our invitation, is to see our fellow human beings through the eyes of Jesus.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What kept the Pharisees and the disciples from seeing the man born blind?
2. In what ways do church communities objectify people with disabilities?
3. How does admitting our vulnerability open us up to love? How does Jesus model this for us?
For Further Reading:
Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier (quotation above, p. 37)
Amplifying Our Witness By Ben Connor
The Disabled God by Nancy Eisland
Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most (Zondervan, 2014), and A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany House). Amy Julia lives with her husband Peter and three children, Penny, William, and Marilee in western CT.
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