The Disabled—Different from Us, and Yet Very Much The Same
By Ken K. Gourdin
I. Point: Although the Contributions of The Disabled Are Not Easily Quantifiable in a “Bottom-Line” Sense, Lack of Quantifiability Doesn’t Make Those Contributions Any Less Real or Any Less Valuable – I made the point laid out in the heading to this section in a letter submitted to (but never, to the best of my knowledge, published by) the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, dated December 28, 1999. (The Public Forum is the Tribune’s letters to the editor section.) It was in response to the letter of another Tribune correspondent whose views presumably would favor selective abortion of infants whose disabilities are discovered in utero.
This is response to Wayne Wilson’s Forum letter of December 24. I was highly disturbed by Mr. Wilson’s implication that people with Down’s Syndrome are incapable of making the kind of meaningful societal contribution which he can easily quantify, they would be better off never having been born. Speaking from my personal experience, I can testify that disabilities, perhaps more than any other type of challenge, have a way of teaching us what is really important about living and about life. Although contributions of the disabled sometimes are not easily quantified by Mr. Wilson’s “dollar sign bottom line,” these contributions transcend and offset the costs inherent to empowering the disabled by meeting their physical and mental needs, by educating them, and by affording them the opportunity to make the most meaningful societal contribution possible.
I feel very fortunate to have been born in a country which, even though this hasn’t always been the case, strives to provide the disabled with the opportunity to test their abilities by fully exploring their potential. Is Mr. Wilson proposing that we return to the days when the disabled were routinely institutionalized and ostracized—that we restore the social stigma of having a disabled child as a means of population control? If so, there are still a number of countries in the world where he would be welcomed with open arms, and where he will be free to realize his misguided vision and to promulgate his misguided dogma. And if we are to arbitrarily abort imperfect fetuses, where do we draw the line? Do we then turn to euthanizing the disabled who have already been born? Whether he wishes to admit it or not, Mr. Wilson’s views could well be the first step down that slippery slope.
I will assume that Mr. Wilson is perfectly capable of making his own reproductive choices, but it is the height of arrogance for him to attempt to apply his personal standard to the reproductive choices of others. Believe it or not, Mr. Wilson, many people consider it a blessing to have a disabled child. And many disabled individuals have made the contribution to this world that you will never even approach. There is Chris Burke, the actor with Down’s Syndrome whose portrayals have touched countless hearts; there is Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant insights into the universe have shaped the sciences in ways that are only beginning to be understood; and there was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a statesman first and a politician second—if at all. And there are countless disabled individuals unknown to the world at large who have touched countless hearts [not to mention countless minds] in countless other ways.
The contributions of these people far outweigh the expenditures necessary to empower them and others like them. If Mr. Wilson wishes to live in a world devoid of these contributions merely for the sake of saving a few dollars, I pity him.1
II. Counterpoint: Notwithstanding the Point Made in Section I, When it Comes Down to It, The Disabled Aren’t That Much Different Than Their Able-Bodied Counterparts – Although I have quoted this excerpt from correspondence elsewhere on the blog, it’s useful for making the point described in the heading to Section II. I was nominated for Dixie College’s (now Dixie State University’s) “Achievement of the Year” award in 1991. The award is voted on by the student body, and is presented annually to a student who successfully meets unusual challenges in pursuit of a higher education. In response to my nomination, I wrote Bill Fowler, then the Dean of Students, a letter which included the following excerpt:
There may be many challenges involved for [us] who are handicapped in being successful in life, but that’s not the way most of us look at it. I don’t wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and say, “I’m going to inspire the world today!” Non-handicapped people look at us and marvel at the challenges we so “courageously” face only because they’re not handicapped. If they were handicapped, they would realize that we don’t seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “exceptional”; we seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “normal,” and I’ve never met anyone who’s gotten an award for being “normal.”
Being “normal” has nothing to do with not being handicapped. Instead, we who are handicapped want others to look at us and realize that inside these imperfect bodies are whole—“normal”—people. We don’t want life to give us special terms just because we’re handicapped. We want to play and win the game of life on the same terms as anyone else. And since the game of life is a team effort, maybe we can play the game—and share the victories—together. If we have to work harder than most to win those victories, we need not be pitied for that because it will make those victories far, far sweeter.
I consider myself very fortunate because people can clearly see my biggest handicap. And because most people want to be good, they’re willing to help me in whatever way I need. Yet I know scores of people who don’t get the help that they need to face their handicaps. Why? Because those handicaps are invisible. They may be emotional, social, or psychological, and many of them are bigger than the physical handicaps we think are so formidable.
As tough as life is, there is nothing that need handicap us from doing what’s really important. It’s really important to love one’s neighbor as [oneself]. It’s really important to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It’s really important to remember that whether we’re handicapped or not, we need to accept one another for who we are, and to always remember what we can become.
I used to waste time to trying to convince people to accept me in spite of my handicap. Now, I want them to accept me[ ] handicap and all, because without my handicap I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It has taught me a great deal that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. In her autobiography the actress Geri Jewell says that the words “Cerebral Palsy” are the two ugliest words in the English language. I think there are far uglier words like ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice and hate. It’s true that I’ve had to deal with all of these things because of my Cerebral Palsy, but my CP didn’t create them. People’s reactions to my CP created them.2
In furtherance of the counterpoint, consider the debunking of an urban legend on the Website devoted to that pursuit, Snopes.com. One such urban legend which the Web site examines is the report that during a Special Olympics race, when one competitor slipped and fell, all of the other competitors stopped and proceeded back to where their erstwhile competitor had fallen and helped him up, whereupon the group, en masse, joined arms and proceeded to cross the finish line together. In fact, it was not the entire group of athletes which helped their erstwhile competitor cross the finish line, but rather two competitors who stopped, returned, and helped the fallen racer up, then proceeding to cross the finish line with their fallen comrade. One of the site’s purveyors says this about the incident, commenting on why it received such wide dissemination:
We find comfort in the notion that the disadvantaged are blessed in other ways by a benevolent God who works in mysterious fashion to keep all things in balance, hence our desire to believe deficiencies in intelligence are compensated for by unfailingly sweet natures and a way of looking at the world in childlike wonder. A story about disabled athletes linked arm-in-arm falls on receptive ears—it fits how we want to see these folks thus . . . [it] works to confirm the validity of the stereotypes we’ve chosen to adopt.
Our guilt at having more abilities than others have been blessed with is appeased by the belief that the mentally handicapped are better natured or in another way of a higher order. As long as we can believe that the scales are being balanced in some inexplicable way, we can feel comfortable with our comparative good fortune.3
So what is the bottom line? Life often isn’t fair. We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses. Sometimes we don’t take adequate notice of the former, and we tend to overlook the latter if they are not visible. Most of us are playing (and winning) the game of life against odds which are not readily discernible. We have our good days and our bad days (and weeks, and months, and years). We celebrate and savor the former, and after the latter come, we pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off, and go at it again, hopefully learning and growing in the process. Some of my biggest challenges are also my most visible: I wouldn’t trade many of my supposedly-“big” visible challenges for many challenges others face which are no smaller, even if they cannot be seen.
And whatever challenges and unfairnesses we face in this life, we should remember that it is but the second act in a three-act play. We lived as spirits before coming to this earth, and we will live, first as spirits and then as resurrected beings, after we leave it. Joseph Smith, founder and first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, “All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”4
1. Ken K. Gourdin (December 28, 1999) Untitled (Letter to the editor), submitted to (but declined for publication by) The Salt Lake Tribune, copy in author’s possession as of July 30, 2013.
2. Ken K. Gourdin (April 18, 1991) Correspondence to then-Dixie College Dean of Students Bill Fowler, as reprinted in Ken K. Gourdin (2003), My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years (Collierville, Tenn.: Instantpublisher.com) 156-157.
3. Barbara Mikkelson (Last updated January 18, 2013) “Human(e) Race” (Blog post), Snopes.com, accessed on line at the following address on July 30, 2013: http://www.snopes.com/glurge/special.asp.
4. Eric P. Shields (March 2005), “All Your Losses,” Ensign, accessed on line at the following address on July 30, 2013: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2005/03/all-your-losses?lang=eng#footnote1-25903_000_021, quoting Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976) Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 296.