Who said having a disability is negative?

by John Naudé

Yet many disabled people say the biggest issue that they have is not the impairment itself, but rather the way people respond to it

© Marc V. Appelghem / WCC

As a 38-year-old man who uses a wheelchair and is approaching middle age, I find the concept of being not disabled quite intriguing. Many friends and colleagues tell me about the benefits of not being disabled, yet I have never felt the need or the desire to be healed or to become non-disabled.

I appreciate that some people who become disabled through ill health, accident or some degenerative condition may wish to be as they were before. Yet many disabled people say the biggest issue that they have is not the impairment itself, but rather the way people respond to it.

Many people tell me that without my disability I would be free from pain and discrimination and be able to do so much more. Similarly, I have asked the female participants in disability awareness training, if they would prefer to be men so as to be spared the pain of menstruation and childbirth, and the discrimination against them as women. They tell me very clearly "No, I would not want to be a man." I ask Black people whether they would not rather be White, and not face such prejudice and discrimination. Again the answer is a clear "No". The fact of being a woman or a Black person is part of who they are. While there is an assumption that disabled people would rather not be disabled, I and other disabled people would say that the disability is part of our identity.

Yet as a disabled person who believes in Christ, I also believe that I am made in the image of God, and that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist says. I do recognise that I was born with a disability, and that those who become disabled later in life may feel differently about it. However, when I was growing up, I always thought that to lose my sight would be the "worst" disability. But my friends who were blind or partially sighted would say that at least they had their mobility. So in one sense, it is all relative, and it depends on how you view yourself and others.

Some people who have become disabled through illness, war or accident have told me that they are thankful that they had many years of being non-disabled. However, I have also come across some disabled people who said that their "quality of life" had improved considerably since they became disabled. This was because they had to re-evaluate their life, and explore its meaning. This in turn led to new interests, stronger relationships and a greater appreciation of who their friends really were.

The images charities create
In the United Kingdom, the multiple sclerosis charity did a television and cinema advertising campaign in the 1980ís with horrifying images of a beautiful young man and woman semi-naked, with parts of their bodies being ripped apart like paper. It showed people who thought that they were "safe" because they were young and attractive as susceptible to this form of disability. During this campaign, the group became the highest earning charity in the UK.

Fear was the message this campaign conveyed. People were terrified of becoming disabled through multiple sclerosis (MS). However, some people who had MS objected to it on the grounds that it did not accurately reflect what it is like to live with MS. In the bill-board advertisement, a message in small print said the MS charity was "A hope in hell". This continued to fuel peopleís perception that disability is "hell" and, indeed, "sent from hell" - something very negative that people should be afraid of.

In the past charities have played an important role in helping to portray the negative, "helpless" image of disabled people. Yet research has shown that their income will not be affected if charities show positive images of disabled people. Indeed, some charities are now showing the positive outcomes of the work disabled people do achieve with no reduction in their income!

The realities of disability
It may appear to the reader that this article is all about the positive aspects of having a disability. But of course having a disability brings frustrations. I may be described as a hopeless romantic. I may dream of being on a beach at sunset with my wife, with the waves lapping at her feet. Yet the reality is that I would probably sink in the sand, and any romantic ideas would be forgotten as she struggled to rescue me. I would also love to go for walks in the hills or mountains with my wife, yet that is a real problem, and my disability brings restrictions. It also brings pain at times. Operations and medication may be necess-ary. But I have learnt to live with these aspects of having a disability, even though at times they may be scary or painful. And I have never felt the need or desire to be not disabled. Maybe it is because I donít know what it would be like, because the "benefits" of not being disabled seem unreal. Or because I feel all the pain, the operations, the discrimination, etc. these have played a part in shaping me into the person I have become: hopefully, not some bitter, twisted individual, but a person who feels great strength, and has a broad outlook on life.

Iím not saying that a non-disabled person may not have these same characteristics. I simply feel that for me, these are some of the things that have shaped me into the person I am. Having a disability has brought new opportunities.

What are the positive aspects of having a disability?
Rather than seeing disability as something purely negative, it does in fact have some positive aspects. These can be both internal, like the effects on my character mentioned above, and external, such as the fact that the society I live in has made some compensatory decisions to help me live with my disability. These may be seen as simply granting the "rights" of disabled people, yet I know that within certain cultures, these "rights" donít exist.

Many disabled people have had to learn to be patient. When you need to wait for someone to assist you across the road, up some stairs, to be dressed or to be fed, one of the things you learn is to be patient. As frustrating as this can be at times, it begins to become part of your character. There are other characteristics that you can acquire, such as discovering who your friends really are, learning to ask for help, discovering new ways to do things, pushing back your own or othersí boundaries, listening to other people, valuing others that society may choose to ignore or devalue, acquiring a new skill, feeling or attitude.

There are also the external advantages. Disabled people can display a permit on their cars that allows them to park in restricted areas for a limited period. They are entitled to free parking in most car parks. They receive financial allowances from the government that recognises that they must bear extra costs.

Disability "rights"
Freedom of choice is something unknown for many disabled people. They are often restricted not by their disability but through the boundaries other people put upon them. For example, in job interviews, employers often ask discriminating questions and make discriminating assumptions. Yet in most cases this is done out of ignorance rather than deliberately. Hopefully, we are aware that it is not appropriate to be prejudicial towards women and people from different cultures or races, and most countries have laws that prevent such behaviour. But for disabled people there is no such protection. The need for anti-discrimination laws is vital in all countries.

Whilst charities have played an important role in campaigning and providing services to disabled people, the UK government continues to deny its responsibility and allows charities to provide the services that it, as the government, should be providing to disabled people as a "right". Disabled people represent 14% of the UK population, and a time is approaching when they will become a strong political voice, and use that voice to bring change.

It is also important that our societies accept disabled people for who they are. Disabled people can make a valuable contribution, based on the experiences gained as a result of their disability. For example, some schools welcome children with Downís Syndrome for their easy-going and loving personalities. This is just one example of a characteristic that disabled people can offer society.

How can the church respond?
The churchís response is both inside and outside its own house; it can play an important part in changing societyís response to disabled people. We can proclaim the need to value all Godís people, and to recognise that all people should be treated equally.

If we know that all people are created equal in the sight of God, and that all have access to God through Jesus Christ, then the church has a responsibility to ensure that its doors are not closed to the gifts and needs of disabled people. Sadly, as the chairman of Church Action on Disability (CHAD), I have come across many areas where the church has not shown Christís love and acceptance of disabled people. The need to value the whole body, and see the part that disabled people play in enabling the body of Christ to function fully, is as yet not happening. But as we begin to see the positive rather than the negative side of disability, hopefully we will see attitudes changing.

Rev John Naudé, from the UK, is Chairperson of Church Action on Disability (CHAD).

Back to table of contents of ECHOES no. 19/2001