3 December is International Day of People with Disability
The International Day of People with Disability reflects a deeper recent understanding of the human reality of disability. Even the title of the Day suggests that change. Once, we would have referred to it as the Day for the Disabled. That name might suggest that they are a group of identical people, all with the same face. It invites us to feel pity for people who are different from us and are defined by what they don’t have and can’t do.
The change in the name of the Day reminds us that each person who is disabled in some way is above all a unique human being with many gifts who is also limited in some ways that most people are not. It invites us to be compassionate to people who are disabled as we recognise the frustrations that often accompany disability, but even more to admire them in their gifts and the courage they show in their lives. It says that people who are disabled are people like us and that their stories can teach and inspire us. Like any group of people, they are not like a box of eggs, all the same, but like a basket of mixed fruit, each different and with much to offer to the eye and to taste.
This change in the way of looking at people with disabilities has also entered public life. Instead of automatically excluding students with disabilities from team games, schools find ways to include them where possible. Halls are built with ramps to help people in wheelchairs or with walkers to access them, and Government Offices always allow access. In the wider community, too, sporting competitions for people with disabilities have not only grown but are now often reported in the media. Australian Paralympians or tennis players are headline stories when they win international contests. Their success, in turn, encourages the public to admire the gifts and skills of people with similar disabilities instead of pitying them.
When Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year, he spoke simply and directly about the importance of enabling gifted people with disabilities to make a contribution to society that they might otherwise be excluded from making. His example has encouraged reporters to speak to other people with disabilities about their experiences and about how they want others to relate to them. They can now be seen and heard.
These are good things but they only touch the surface. People with disabilities face the same challenges in society as other people who stand out as being different by their race, religion or language. It is easy for other people to feel uneasy in their company, not sure how to address them, and so to shut them out, make fun of them and exclude them. The life of any person who is seen as different can be made very miserable at school and in public. And they find it difficult to have simple changes made that will enable them to contribute their gifts to society.
For Jesus, people with disabilities were especially precious. He cured, encouraged and showed them that they are special in God’s eyes. He marked out a response that he wanted Christians to follow. Churches, Church schools, hospitals and other institutions should be outstanding in the way they welcome people with disabilities and make a space in which they can be at home and flourish.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.