Disabled or Differently Abled? Toward a Deeper Recogition of the Dignity of the Disabled.

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, or 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 and important 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 illness, 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 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 too easily 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 I think had very important reasons to permit this. 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.

22 Replies to “Disabled or Differently Abled? Toward a Deeper Recogition of the Dignity of the Disabled.”

  1. I prefer the term “disabled”. It reminds me of the Cross, which in turn reminds me of Christ’s words to the saints: “I permit so-and-so to suffer like this for the salvation of souls and for the glory he will receive in Heaven.” As Pope Benedict XVI once said, those who suffer are co-redeemers with the Redeemer. No offense intended.

  2. What a beautiful life given for others, from the parents through the child. Truly a miracle of miracles! No disability here, only abilities.

    Patricia in St. Louis, MO

  3. Right on Msgr. I’ve thought this for so long. They live a blessed life, many a life without sin, and the world does not see it. They have so many lessons to teach us, and still so few of the world will not listen.

    See: http://www.prayingwithlior.com/contact.html

    An engrossing, wrenching and tender documentary film, PRAYING WITH LIOR introduces Lior Liebling, also called “the little rebbe.” Lior has Down syndrome, and has spent his entire life praying with utter abandon. Is he a “spiritual genius” as many around him say? Or simply the vessel that contains everyone’s unfulfilled wishes and expectations? Lior – whose name means “my light” – lost his mother at age six, and her words and spirit hover over the film. While everyone agrees Lior is closer to God, he’s also a burden, a best friend, an inspiration, and an embarrassment, depending on which family member is speaking. As Lior approaches Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony different characters provides a window into life spent “praying with Lior.” The movie poses difficult questions such as what is “disability” and who really talks to God? Told with intimacy and humor, PRAYING WITH LIOR is a family story, a triumph story, a grief story, a divinely-inspired story.

  4. Elizabeth Caitlin is my daughter. She was born with a very rare condition. Her life was very hard to say the least. The greatest gift from God was her smile for me. I miss her so much eveyrday and only hope I can worthy enough to see her again in Heaven where I know she is at peace praying for us. I never got to hear her say Dad but that smile. Oh my.

    Thank you God and Elizabeth.

  5. Monsignor Pope, I am glad to learn of your experience with the profoundly mentally dissable and to see that you learned to know them just by looking at them. This is amazing. They have a lot to teach us if we allow ourselves to humbly be taught at.

  6. This is a timely post for us. My husband and I are in our late 40s and we have a marriage open to life again (thanks be to God and Church). Imagine when we told our family and friends: you are crazy, you will have a Down’s baby, you are too old. A scant few (whom I treasure) were positive. I try to be like Mary and say “Fiat” but the old worries about “less than perfect babies” in the eyes of the world surface from time to time. I have to constantly ask for grace and courage. I humbly ask for your prayers.

  7. He will never leave us or forsake us… His words not mine. Physical difference are just that. Physical. In allowing those different abilities He gifts us in ways beyond our understanding. Patrick Henry Hughes may not have his physical eyesight, but he has been given the ability to see through the eyes of God and goes to far reaching places in communion with God each of us can only hope for. Any gifted musician would agree that in entering into the world of ‘music’ the creature connects with the Creator where the soul soars to far reaching heights and share an unspeakable joy with He who made him. Each human being is “perfect” in Him. Bravo!

  8. In adult catechesis, I have suggested that we must think of the disabled as particularly close to God who, incarnate in the person Jesus Christ, may be seen as the most disabled person there ever was.

  9. I have cerebral palsy with no cognitive impairments. I see my limitations as something God allows so that I can realize my dependence on him and love him more.

  10. I’m the father of four, including twins with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Every week during the school year I teach a Special Needs CCD (REP) class in our parish. Kids who come to the class have a lot of complications but all go on to receive their sacraments. A couple years ago, our local Bishop held a special, smaller confirmation liturgy just for a half dozen special needs kids, all of whom were “graduates” of our class. Many of the kids in the class have little or no language, so you’ll have to take “my word” for it: They all UNDERSTAND; I mean really, really UNDERSTAND. That which so often escapes the rest of us does not escape them. Thank you for the column, Msgr. Pope. I don’t consider your analogy anything but apt.

  11. Msgr, have you caught Fr. Alfred McBride’s interview on ETWN Bookmark this week discussing Fr. McBride’s books, A Short History of the Mass and How to Make Homilies Better, Briefer, and Bolder? At 17:26 Fr. McBride made an interesting reference to one of your Easter blog posts, was he referring to Making Sense of the Resurrection Accounts – Are there Discrepancies? or another blog post?

    http://www.ewtn.com/bookmark/index.asp (17:26)

  12. I like the term disabled, can not stand when some calls me something different because they want to be nice because they want to make me feel better

  13. Monsignor,
    Thank you for this thought provoking article. As a member of a religious congregation who dedicate our lives to persons with developmental disabilities (Our Founder Fr. Luigi Guanella was just canonized this past Sunday), I am grateful that you brought attention to this subject. Perhaps, I am misinterpreting your analogy, however, point of the analogy of the paperclip seems to hinge on the supposition that the source of worth of persons are their usefulness. May I suggest that the dignity of the person comes from the fact that they reflect the goodness and beauty of God, in whose image they are created, and in their loving relations with God and other persons (even if we are unable to experience their expression of it) so their “usefulness, is not so important, it is a secondary or tertiary source of their dignity at most.

  14. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for this beautiful post. My parish celebrates a religious service for the disabled once a month and my husband and I go along to help to bring these wonderful patients to the service from their rooms. It was very hard for me in the beginning to do this, but you begin to love them and know them by name and now I look forward to that second Sunday of the month.

    To Vijaya,
    Congratulations on your being with child at your age. It is real blessing. I had my last one at age 45, refused
    sonograms, amnio, what for? There was nothing I would do with the results. Your faith will see you through.
    Make sure you let Msgr. and us readers know when the little one arrives. You are in my prayers.

    1. Thank you, esuil, but you misunderstood. I am not yet with child. My husband recently had a vasectomy reversal so that we may again say “Yes” to God if He should bless us again with children. We pray for complete healing and “Thy will be done.” I can be alternately ecstatic and terrified, but reading these amazing testimonies give me peace.

  15. I am a Filipino and I always follow your sunday reflections, even sharing it in our ministry’s Facebook account every Monday (as we are a day ahead of you). Your posts are enlightening and I always learn a lot from your exegesis.

    I work at a non-profit organization promoting the rights of people with disabilities, that is why this particular post caught my interest and compelled me to join the conversation. I lead a programme that helps them get into either waged or self employment. Nowadays, in the disability sector around the world, the term “person with disability” is more accepted than both disabled and differently-abled, these two words are actually being avoided in our literature and conversations as well. “Disabled” focuses on their disability and on what they cannot do; it connotes “uselessness” and often derogatory. On the other hand, if I can eat shards of broken glass, I am “differently-abled”; the term also suggests that persons with disability are different, when in fact they are not. We prefer to use persons with disability for we always wanted to emphasize that first and foremost, like us, they are PERSONS who deserve the same respect that we do.

    Well, I have to admit that the term person with disability is the preferred term at the moment and the disability movement itself is evolving, who knows we can coin a better term in the future. God bless you Msgr Charles and the American clergy.

  16. Such a beautiful story……I recently read the story of the incredible family of Patrick Henry Hughes…if you google his name, you will read his story how his family and he overcame his blindness and crippled body to become a real asset to his community in Kentucky. Incredible is the only word I can come up with!

    Patricia in St. Louis, MO

  17. Worked with “differently-abled” adults for several years. The greatest tragedy I witnessed was the way most had been treated by the state while under its care. Many developed an institutional character that was duplicitous and manipulating. Most of these vulnerable people were considered little more than guinea pigs for medicinal and behavioral therapies that bordered on cruel. The Church definitely needs to play a greater role in these people’s lives.

  18. The “high infant mortality” thing is absolutely ludicrous. It’s measured by how many deaths per live births there are. When they do this by country, it makes it laughable. For instance, look at this:

  19. Personally, I prefer to be called disabled because it states the fact that I am disabled by the barriers society puts in my way, not through being Autistic (yes, I prefer identity-first language).

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