I have a disability, which prevents me from driving. Sometimes this has left me feeling excluded or “less than”, while other times it hasn’t. It seems to me the difference lay in how people “saw” me, and whether they then moved toward me, or not. For instance, for several years I was a volunteer staff member at a local church. More than once when I was attempting to join or get involved with a specific project or activity, the leader would be verbally supportive of my desire, YET made no move to aid me in doing so … even when I asked! Conversely though, the majority of the time people would be eager to help me, going out of their way to give me a hand.
It’s interesting, I sit here ready to transition, but my heart is REALLY heavy. The thought of the few times when leaders didn’t see me well and move toward me are bringing tears to my eyes. I can’t think of much worse than being or feeling excluded. Unwanted or long-term isolation is a killer of spirits, souls, and people. I share this bit of my story because while we’re all doing the best we can, I’ve recently had my eyes opened to how our collective best isn’t enough when it comes to people with disabilities/disorders, because WAY too many of our otherly abled sisters and brothers are suffering.
For a good chunk of my adult life I was in the Air Force, where I would sometimes join fellow airmen in expressing frustration over “political correctness”, especially when it comes to words one “should” or “shouldn’t” use. I mention that merely to point out when we name a group of people as “other” or “different” from us, it becomes WAY easier (and sometimes natural) to exclude, minimize, hurt, kill, and/or demonize “them”.
It seems to me even innocently naming people with disabilities “disabled”, immediately dubs them “less than”, foreign, different, and so on. It helps us forget we’re all pink on the inside, we all desire to love and be loved, we all yearn to be valued and included, and so on. It blinds us from seeing how despite our differences, we’re more alike than unalike. I mention this because in the U.S. there are countless stories of people with mental infirmities who committed crimes while not in their right minds, yet, instead of being treated for and healed from their illness, they’re thrown away in prison. How does that make things better? This arrangement is ruining their lives by not only NOT caring for them and helping them heal, but untreated, isolated, and in an unfriendly environment their disorders get worse. And that’s not even to talk about when people with mental illnesses are wrongly convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.
I’m nearly done listening to Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, and he tells heart-breaking stories and gives plenty of data backing this up. I won’t bore you with a ton of statistics, but here’s a few that opened my eyes. America’s jails and prisons hold THREE TIMES more people with mental health conditions than mental hospitals do. What is more, people in jails or prisons are 4-6 times MORE likely to have cognitive disabilities than the general population outside of prison.
People with mental disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in my nation’s prisons and jails, and my theory is it’s at least partially because we’ve stigmatized “them”, thus excluding, forgetting, neglecting, not seeing, and not caring for these sisters and brothers as well as we can.
Part of my awakening to this issue was listening to a podcast where Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist, talked about a growing trend amongst our youth: The Stigma Club. Apparently this is something like an extracurricular school activity wherein the students get together to recognize and repair the ways we use names, labels, and titles to separate, marginalize, neglect, and harm people “different” from us. Their point is the same as mine: Let’s remember and treat EVERYONE first and foremost like we’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all worthy, we all belong, and we all deserve care and compassion. May we see each other well and move toward one another in loving ways.
In Just Mercy Bryan reflects on how brokenness isn’t a “bad” thing, it’s a common one. ALL humans have broken bits, yet I think this scares us, so instead of leaning into this commonality and letting the Light shine through our “gaps”, we remove this “stigma” from ourselves and place it squarely on disabled people alone. So, let’s flip the script! I invite you to join me in proclaiming: I’m notdisabled, “they’re” notdisabled, we’re ALL humans withdisabilities, which is the same as being plain, old human, because who of us doesn’t have weaknesses, frailties, and struggles?
Grace and peace,