Disability or Different Ability?

Allow me to begin with a parable. Every now and then I take a perfectly good paper clip and I untwist and reconfigure it for some purpose. Once I used untwisted paperclips to hang Christmas ornaments on the tree. Another time I untwisted and fashioned a paperclip into a hook to keep my file drawer from rolling open. Now if paperclips could see and think and talk they might be horrified and saddened to see a fellow paperclip so deformed. And perhaps I could try and explain that these “deformed” paperclips were actually not a disaster, they were quite useful to me in their “deformed” condition. But alas, the paperclips cannot understand this, they just look with sadness and horror on the deformed paperclips. After all how can you expect a paperclip to understand something other than clipping paper? They are just paperclips after all and can’t understand deeper things beyond the world they know, which is clipping paper.

I have often wondered if this isn’t something of the truth about us in our understanding of things such as disability, birth defects, and personal challenges of some of our fellow human family members. As we look upon the disabled, the handicapped, those who struggle with deformity, mental illnes, profound and/or mild mental disability we are often moved to sadness and even horror. And we easily ask, “Why does God allow this?!” We quickly conclude that such people’s lives are unhappy or that they will never reach full potential.

And yet I wonder if we really know what we are talking about. Who of us can really say what our own purpose in God’s plan is let alone anyone else’s? We are like paperclips in a drawer who know only one thing. Our minds are too small for us to ever understand the very special and significant role that even the most “impaired” in our world play. Perhaps in heaven we will realize what an indispensable and central role role they had in God’s plan and victory.   Of all the paperclips in the drawer some of the most useful to me are the ones I twist and refashion.

A knowledge too high – I pray you will accept my humble example of a paperclip. I mean no disrespect to the human person in comparing us to paperclips. We are surely more precious and complicated and God does not glibly use us like paperclips. But my example must be humble to illustrate what is for us a knowledge too high for us to grasp:  the knowledge of the dignity and essential purpose of every human being to God and his plan. Our judgments in this matter cannot be much better than a paperclip in a drawer compared to God’s omniscient wisdom. If it is absurd for us to think a paperclip could understand our ways is it really much less absurd to think we can understand all God’s ways? And if we cannot understand his ways, why do we make judgments as to another person’s role, usefulness, beatitude or status? We look down on the poor but scripture says we should look up to them and that God is especially close to the poor, the suffering, the brokenhearted and the humble. Scripture says he uses the lowly to humble the proud. And yet still we so easily look with pity on those we consider disadvantaged.

A Story – Over twenty years ago I worked for a year with the profoundly mentally disabled. They lay in beds and wheelchairs often with little muscle control. None of them could talk and only a few could engage in rudimentary communication. There was one man in his forties who had never emerged from the fetal position. He  lay in a large crib his tiny yet clearly adult body curled up like a newborn babe. And on his face the most angelic smile that almost never diminished. He had been baptized as an infant and to my knowledge could not have sinned. I looked with marvel each visit upon innocence and a beatific countenance. What an astonishing gift he was. And who knows but God why he was this way? But God DOES know and had very important reasons. There was something central and indispensable in this man’s existence. Some role only he could fill. Apparently I was not able to fill that role. He was not disabled, he was differently abled, uniquely abled for something  different than the ordinary. Looking upon him I had little doubt that he was directly in touch with God in a way that I never had been for his radiant face infallibly conveyed that. With our human eyes we can be saddened even appalled. But we’ll understand it better by an by. One day in the great by and by we may well be surprised to learn that the most central and critical people in God’s plan were the most humble and often the most broken and that we would never have made it without them.

This video depicts the paradox of disability that sometimes shines through to teach us that we do not see the whole picture. A child was born with significant defects but suddenly as he  grew remarkable gifts showed forth. Just a little reminder from God, a glimpse of what God sees,  that the disabled are to him  differently and wonderfully abled. Meet Patrick Henry Hughes.

29 Replies to “Disability or Different Ability?”

  1. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I can tell you it is consoling to read the lives of the saints: Not only for their meditations and advice and prayers and good example, but also for the reminder that God loves me and calls me to be holy in spite of my unworthiness and nothingness. I have also found that a few saints were disabled themselves: Saint Thomas Aquinas was mentally insane, if I remember correctly. Jesus told Saint Maragret Mary that He chooses the weak for His Glory, and while this may seem selfish to the world, to His instruments it is a great honor and great privilege.

    1. Thanks for reading the blog and participating in the comments. You are right that God chooses the weak and those the wolrd considers limited to manifest his glory.

      A correction, That St. Thomas Aquinas was not insane. Not sure where that impression was created. It is true that at the very end of his life he received visions that made him withdraw a bit and doubt his writings. But in the end it was a good thing for him to experience this humility just months before his death.

  2. Eternal Life is to know you Father, the only true God and Him whom you sent: Jesus Christ! Jn 17:3.

    Friendship is the joy of Life that God offers to all. Some get the chance to know God in poverty, others in sickness and others in prosperity or fruitfulness. The ability to know God in adversity is quite a gift. Think of the possibilities for intimacy with God when you are very clear that your life depends on him, daily, maybe every hour of the day – and this is also true of people whose life is threaten by natural disasters. Thanks be to God high I.Q. is not a requisite to enjoy friendship!

  3. Monsignor, thanks for this beautiful article and video (tears in eyes).
    What a loving father.

  4. I had a very moving experience not too long ago. I worked for a Beer distributor and the job required putting up signs in not always the most convenient places. While struggling to put up a sign (I was standing on an outside ice machine and stretching) , I heard a voice ask if I needed help. I turned around and gasped to myself (I had a deformity as a child and never liked when people gasped at me so I always tried to stifle myself). This poor guy had tumors all over his face. So much so they disfigured him by making his face seem large and lumpy. Normally, I am not a person to ask for or take help when offered anyway, but, because of his deformity I declined. He asked if I was sure and then something happened. I thought for a brief second. What was I afraid of? Another HUMAN BEING is offering me help. Why should I turn that down because of the way he looked? I turned around and said, “Ya know what, yeah I could use some help, come one over.” Not only did he help, he ended up doing practically everything. I felt bad but then thought, let him go. As much as I could have used the help, I am sure it felt good for him to help and, maybe for once, not be shyed away from. I offered him a thank you gift out of my truck, just a bottle opener or metal sign. He said don’t worry about it and jumped back in his truck and took off as happy as can be. Not prideful, but happy. I never saw him again and later I was transferred to a new area. I never forgot that experience and feel joy and sadness about it. Sad, because I almost let my own pride keep me from not only having help, but darn good help too! Joy because I feel like I learned a valuable lesson. God is everywhere and his mercy and grace do not always appear the way we imagine. I really struggled with that sign. It was 8 ft. wide, it was windy out and I am not the greatest fan of heights. All I asked for is that God keep me safe up there and then I heard the voice asking me if I needed help. I was upeset over doing such a big job alone, and I know the guy who offered to help must get down and out sometimes. But there, in that 5 minute span (The guy worked quick, he was awesome) my fear turned to joy and I have to figure it made the other guy feel good too. I feel God was present and reaching out, maybe even testing me. If I am truely devout and truely want the Lord to be part of my life, then I have to put everything aside, especially, my pride. It really is a deadly sin that takes you away from God. Not only did I almost turn down some great help, but I almost turned down God’s help. That’s something I never want to do. The man was differently abled, he could do what I could not. Ironically, It had nothing to do with his deformity but everything to do with my fear. So, tell me, who was the handicapped one? God Bless you and thank you for the great post Msgr.

      1. Interesting you bring that up because it definitely crossed my mind. Seriously, it did! I have heard the stories where people claim an encounter with an Angel and I wondered if I just had one. And if not, well the whole experience was so enlightening there is no question, The Lord was present.

  5. My sister is an adult with special needs. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve episodes of others acting in ignorance. I remember one episode at the playground when I was very young and a boy trapped my sister at the top of the slide. My sister panicked and the boy’s mom laughed. I VERY CLEARLY remember the surge that went through my body as I grabbed the back of the boy’s pants, pulled him to the ground and pounced on top of him. His mom came to his rescue and grabbed me by my shoulders. By this time, my mom who’d seen all, was there too. When the woman shook me and told me to apologize I said, “NO! He’s stupid, and you’re stupid too.” The woman looked at my mom, expecting her to intervene, but my mom smiled and said, “Have a nice day. Let’s go girls.” And we went home.

    From a young age, I understood that another’s care was entrusted to me, and in a way, it made me feel like I was given something special. When I grew, I learned not to presume God’s intention, but as a young child, I did believe God chose my sister for our family and me specially to be her sister, and thus I presumed that meant that I had been given special gifts to meet the responsibilities.

    Also, the image of the sinless man in the fetal position really resonated with me. My sister has done crazy things, but nothing with a malicious heart- EVER. She might do something wrong, but it’s done with a child’s heart, and though it might be really irritating, I almost always end up laughing about it. Here’s one funny story- when I got engaged, my sister took my ring out of my jewelry box and wore it home so she could be engaged too. I panicked before I realized the culprit. It took some coaxing, but she gave it back. I bought my sister her own ring, chose white bridesmaid dresses, and to this day, she thinks she got married June 10, 1995 right along side of me.

  6. “Saint Thomas Aquinas was mentally insane, if I remember correctly”

    No he was not.

    1- He was very lucid as one of the most (if not THE most) prominent theologian and phylosopher of the middle ages. Aquinas’ phylosophy still has an important role in history of phylosophy, even after 8 centuries.

    2- He had many mystical experiences, but those are not related to mental illnesses.

  7. One of my high school mates sent me that video recently because it reminded him of another of our classmates. It was over fifty years ago but I still remember what an inspiration Joe was. He was blind from birth, but was able to the breeze through a tough Catholic high school, The brothers gave him his exams orally and he passed with flying colors. Joe could play the piano too just like Patrick Henry. He could play it better than any of the other students and better than most I have heard since. I have no idea where he is now, but I hope that some day I can see him playing for Jesus. and being able to see all the glory around him.

  8. Thanks for your entry. This young man really is inspirational and generates peace in my heart. 🙂

  9. Truly, we cannot know fully God’s plans for any of us. I do accept the inherint value of your paperclip analogy. You used the paperclips in alternative, even innovative ways. Without being trite, though, it is often difficult for us to imagine what alternative, innovative uses God has in mind for those with severe disabilities. Our God-given human nature drives us to use our natural abilities and faculties, so perhaps it is logical that we cannot perceive alternative roles for those who cannot move, think, or express themselves like the majority of us; and that, being aware of our own abilities and faculties, we react at times with pity or fear when confronted with those different from us.

    Most days I pass a blind person trying to navigate the crowds on the red line, a wheelchair bound person weaving around the clutter on our pavements, or a frail person walking ever so slowly with a cane. I thank God for my abilities at those moments and ask His favor for those individuals. Perhaps God gives us such people to remind each of us of the gifts He has given us; and that, with such reminders, we act deliberatively to use them better than we did before. I do not know, of course; only He knows.

  10. Monsignor, thank you for your beautiful reflections. As the mother of a seven year old daughter with Down syndrome, I often find myself looking at her innocent faith with awe.
    My pastor warned me when, at her Baptism he said, “I think that they (people with Down syndrome) pity us. We have so many barriers between us and God. They have none.” He was right.
    So it is doubly tragic, when we learn that these gifts from the Hand of God are aborted at the shocking rate of 90%. When I discovered this statistic, I began to write everywhere I could on the blessings God has given my family through Christina. You can find my relections on my blog Cause of Our Joy and through my column at Catholic Mom.com.
    Last year, my friend Eileen Haupt and I began KIDS Keep Infants with Down Syndrome, an advocacy group to raise awareness of the tragedy of the high rate of abortions of our beloved children. We have marched in the March for Life for the past two years, and have been warmly greeted by felllow mom of a baby with Down syndrome, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers. So many familes have joined us with gratitude, and a little sadness that it took too long for a group like ours to form.
    May God forgive us our slow reaction of gratitude to these gifts from His Hand, and grant us the wisdom to follow their example of whole-hearted love and clear sighted faith.

  11. I did not see the video link?? Is there a video with this article. It is very well written and extremely important to share!

  12. My older daughter is 29, mildly developmentally delayed, with the emotional maturity of someone at about 12. She is outgoing, friendly, talented and high functioning. Very often, when she tries to make friends, she is rejected due to her differences, sometimes cruelly. We are Catholic and on of the local parishes’ young adult groups kicked her out due to her disability. Then, again, a local Gospel Choir at one of the black parishes did the same thing. We have spoken with the diocese, but nothing is done. I have noticed that only one parish offers special needs religious education. Or least there was one, I don’t know if there is one now.

    I find this painful from a Church that is so strongly pro-life to neglect some God’s children once they arrive.

    1. Hmm…What does the pastor say? I know it is not always possible to accomdate everyone in a group like a choir but I can’t imagine a pastor would not intervene to help in some way. grrr

  13. Patrick Henry Hughes.
    Just want you to know, that as a long-time student of music, that I too have attempted Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
    I say attempted, because Mr. Patrick Henry Hughes played it, not just like a professional, but truly and with feeling. If you look at the video again, he reaches out and even plays the correct notes, by ear, even as a young child. A few times he has not got the melody exactly perfect, (with the nursery rhyme) but the genius and the talent are there is such a profound way. May we never underestimate another’s potential. May be cease to judge by appearances and first sight. (Will have to check up on St. Thomas Acquinas. I know his family didn’t want him in Ministry. Got a little research to do here!). Thanks for the post Msgr. It will help a lot of people.

  14. Great article. Today is my son’s birthday, he’s 19 years old. Hurray! Why am I so happy. He almost didn’t make it. At age 4 my son was diagnosed as having a severe learning disability and ADHD. He had delayed speech and writing difficulties, but I never gave up on him. I spent the early years of his childhood in doctor’s offices and speach and language specialist. It paid off. My son has great oratory skills to this day. He has spoken at the NAACAP youth chapter and several other prominent youth organization in the city and around the country. I often reflect back on what the so called specialist told me and laugh. Thank God I didn’t listen to them.

    It is easy for us to focus on the obvious (physical impairments and obvious mental impairments of children), but a lot of children suffer in silence from other disabilities that are not so obvious (e.g. Learning diabilities, ADHD, depression and the like). These children are very crafty in hiding their disabilites. They go to school taunted and embarrassed sometimes to even tell their parents about their inability to adapt to a mainstream classroom. Teachers even find it difficult to adjust to the different learning styles of many of these children, because they have not been properly trained to deal with children with these challenges. I became my son’s best advocate.

    No matter what your child’s disability maybe, you as the parent are the greatest source of encouragement a child can have. I applaud all of you — I know what it’s like.

  15. Excellent article. I have a brother-in-law who was born with his fontanels (sic) closed. He’s the happiest and sweetest of all the siblings – not one of them could imagine life without him. To see him my children as toddlers explaining things to him and helping him. He didn’t really understand where his brothers and sisters “got” their babies but when we’d announce one was coming his first concern was to run out and buy a juicer so that Mommy and baby would get enough vitamins. When pro-aborts don’t grasp the humanity of the unborn, who’s truly mentally handicapped? He was supposed to have died at 40 and he’s still around at 71!

Comments are closed.