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My heart aches. My mind circles around simple words. Perceptions of people. And what they do to our spirits.

My girlfriend and I were called “fucking lesbians” as we walked down the street last week. That was a first.

We were on our way home from a candlelight memorial. A woman was murdered in downtown Hamilton. Her body was discovered under a pile of rubble and garbage. She was regularly degraded and insulted by those around her because of her addiction and mental health issues. Treated in life and death like a piece of trash.

On my way home, I watched as others watched a person in a wheelchair get on the bus. Watched them judge her appearance, her scent, her speech. Saw fear, disgust, shame in their eyes. Felt it rise in my own. I thought, if I could just look past her disability, her appearance, maybe I would see something more. Maybe I would notice her smile towards the infant in a stroller across from her, the child enraptured by this stranger’s beautiful face.

These moments pile up in my mind like dirty laundry. Distinct instances that all seem to be made of the same thread.

We all do these things, in different ways. Maybe we refer to the ‘crazies’ downtown. Or we meet someone with an intellectual disability on the bus and later joke about how uncomfortable it made us feel.  Or we pity the woman in the wheel chair. Or we say “that’s so retarded.” I have done all of these things.

I know how seemingly harmless and innocent words perpetuate negative stereotypes. I know how we isolate those who are different from us. Perhaps because of our ignorance, perhaps because of our fear.

Jean Vanier describes this fear as an unwillingness to accept our own humanity – our vulnerability, our eventual death. We fear people who have severe disabilities because they challenge us to face our own brokenness, our need for one another.

I also know how words can free us. Authenticity in another is contagious. Being with someone who accepts themselves in gift and weakness empowers me. I know that being around people who sing unabashedly, embracing their own imperfect voices for the sheer joy of melody and celebration, frees me to do the same.

On Friday I listened as Robert Pio Hajjar, founder of Ideal Way – an organization that advocates for people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, shared his journey. “Yes, I have a disability. But I ask you to see my ability.”

We are not very good at treating people like people. I disable you when I judge you. I am discrediting your capacity to be human when all I can see is your limitations.  And in doing so, I am discrediting my own.

I want to move away from fear or pity for those who are different than me, to a place of celebration. I want to embrace your humanity. I want to, like the infant in the stroller, look past your vulnerability and find the beauty in your smile. Past limitations to see possibilities. I refuse to disable people with my words and actions.

By embracing your weakness, I accept my own. I find my humanity reflected in yours.

University ruined my ability to read books.  Before university I could plow through any book in a week, maybe two at the most.  Now it takes me months.  Maybe its because I try to read too many different things concurrently, rather than waiting till I finish one to begin another.  Maybe its because my brain is still fried from all that info they pumped into it at school.  Who knows.

A whopping five months ago I began reading The Boy in the Moon, in which Ian Brown reflects on his relationship with his severely disabled son, Walker.   As I ponder my relationships with the core members at L’arche and my role as discover of their gifts, I reflect on these words.

“What is he trying to show me?  All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own” (3).

“This constant questioning, filtered through Walker – does he mean what he’s doing, or not? – was also a model, a frame on which to hang the human world, a way of living” (39).

“The light her children threw on her life, and the darkness that hovered around them and their future, went hand in hand.  One was not possible without the existence of the other.  The most difficult part to accept was how complex life was, how bleak and at the same time how rich.  [Her daughter’s] mere existence was a form of remonstration, a reminder to look deeper, or at least to be alert.  Who’s to say they’re not happier in their world than I am in mine? And here I am feeling sorry for them because I’m trying to judge them by the standards of the world they aren’t part of.” (144).

“The disabled are a challenge to everyone’s established sense of order: they frighten us, if not with their faces, then with their obvious need. They call us to be more than we ever thought we would have to be” (150).

“Genetic tests are a way to eliminate the imperfect, and all the pain and agony that comes with that imperfection.  I am relieved there was no such test [when Walker was born], that I didn’t have to face the ethical dilemma it may soon present.  Because Walker is proof of what the imperfect and the fragile have to offer; a reminder that there are many ways to be human; a concentrator of joy; an insistent nudge to pay attention to every passing mote of daily life that otherwise slips by uncounted.  A test avoids all that, for better or for worse.  But if there were a more adequate system of caring for the disabled, if we were less frightened of them, if the prospect of looking after a disabled child did not threaten to destroy the lives of those doing the caring – if we had such alternatives, would we need a test at all?” (180).

“Walker’s [group] home is run by an organization that offers assisted living at a thoroughly professional level.  But how does one make a professional operation a home as well – a place full of compassion where people are forgiven endlessly?  Walker had a home where he was taken care of, but was it also a family? Would the place he was cared for feel like his home, occupied by a group of friends and measured by the collective inner life created by its residents?” (186).

Quoting Jean Vanier, “We begin in fragility, we grow up, we are fragile and strong at the same time, and then we go into the process of weakening. So the whole question of the human process is how to integrate strength and weakness. You become human by accepting your own vulnerability.  We’re in a society where we have to know what to do all the time. But if we move instead from the place of our weakness, what happens? We say to people, I need your help. And then we create community” (208).

I let myself get really easily discouraged by small things.  I had a thirty second encounter with someone on Friday that I have not been able to shake since.

I was walking down the street, Dave Matthews serenading my ears, sun shining, welcoming spring.  I was on my way somewhere, which I’m not very often, and it felt deeply good.

I noticed a crowd of youngsters on the sidewalk ahead of me, blocking the way between the bus shelter and the building, waiting to cross in the opposite direction.  No worries, I thought, I can just step off the curb and around the bus shelter and I can continue on my way.

Just as I was about to though, I noticed an older woman in a scooter, the backs of the youngsters blocking her way turned to her.  She could not just step off the curb and go around the bus shelter.  They could not hear her quiet “excuse me” over their laughter.

Here, in my ordinary daily life, an opportunity presented itself for me to use my voice for someone else.  I mustered what I hoped was a cheery and polite voice: “Hey, do you guys want to move out of the way?”  A leader of some sort (apparently this is a class trip or youth group) spoke up: “You have 45 people in front of you, where would you like us to go?”

The wind that had been blowing my inner kite instantly stopped. His words cut.  He hadn’t even noticed the woman.  How could he not notice? Not care?  I stood there, feeling accused.  The light changed and the kids headed off in their direction and I in mine.  A voice from beside me said, “Thank you. Most people don’t notice.”   And then she was ahead of me, and gone.

I feel broken.

I could rant about his selfishness, the poor example he set for his students, his exaggeration (there were about 15 students), the fact that they could have easily stepped into the bus shelter or against the wall to make a path for the woman.  I could lament my failure to engage the woman in conversation, to at least ask her name.  I could complain about the faults of society and today’s youth (and their leaders).  Vent my anger, my embarrassment, my self-righteous indignation.

I’m just sad.  Probably more sad about it than I should be.  I can’t seem to let things roll off my shoulders.  I replay the scene over and over wondering how else I could have started the conversation, how I could have better responded, what I could have said to the woman.

The memory of this moment piles up with other emotions from other occasions, unrelated, but with the same sense of helplessness, or anger, or brokenness.  And I am overwhelmed.

My friend Holli wrote a song.  One line from the chorus has been perpetually playing through my head all day.

“O healing heart, take as long as you need.”

I forget that to heal takes time.  Wounds need to be cleaned and protected or they can easily become reopened, reinfected.

We are all healing hearts.

A forewarning: the disgruntled attitude I am about to express is in no way directed towards you. I’m sure you are a wonderful person.

But let’s get something clear. The adults that I live and work with are, in fact, adults. I am not parenting, babysitting or even care-taking. I am sharing life. I am helping those I live with (be they assistants or core members) in areas where they need help and allowing them to help me where I need it. (Or at least, I am trying. I don’t always do this very well.)

Also, the adults I live and work with are, in fact, individuals. Some of them share common terms or phrases in their medical histories, but that in no way means that they are exactly like any other person.

My frustration comes from encountering a few attitudes that seem to deny both of these facts. On one occasion, a man approached Trevor and I at a church service. He had worked with children with developmental disabilities. He, a stranger to both Trevor and myself, began rubbing Trevor’s back, looked at me and said “I love these people.” If I could shout via email, this would be loud: “Trevor is NOT these people. Trevor is Trevor.” Nor is Trevor a child. Nor is it appropriate to interact with Trevor in a physical way that you would not with any other 30 year old man who is a stranger to you. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go around rubbing strangers on the back.

Another example: A man approached Candice, Rod and Buddy in a restaurant. He said hello to everyone and then turned to Candice to say “It is amazing that you live with these people, I know it’s not easy.” Um, Rod and Buddy both have ears. In fact, they both hear very well. They may not communicate in the way that you are used to, but they both communicate very well. Also, it’s actually not easy to live with anyone. Not only is it amazing that Candice lives with Rod and Buddy, it is amazing that Rod and Buddy live with Candice, or me. We’re not so easy to live with either sometimes. And again, Buddy and Rod are NOT these people. They are individuals, with individual gifts, strengths, likes and dislikes.

Maybe this is counter-cultural, but I believe you can in fact say hello and how are you and anything else you would say to someone you are meeting for the first time directly to a person with a developmental disability. Perhaps someone who knows them better might help you translate your way of communicating into their way of communicating. But you can still talk to them, even if through a translator. If I met an Italian person, I would not say to our translator “how is he doing?” or “what does he like?” or anything like that. I would simply ask the person and allow my question to be translated. Or perhaps the translator could teach me how to ask these questions in Italian. It’s the exact same. Actually, it’s not even the same. Because Rod and Buddy and Trevor can actually understand you. You are the one who needs help understanding.

Please, don’t talk about people, talk to people. Seriously.

We believe we a polite, tolerant, progressive, open-minded nation. Sometimes we treat people like shit. Especially people who are different from us.

I think this is because people who are different than us sometimes scare us. Or maybe it’s just because we haven’t learned how to do things differently.

And a ps: I am still having to learn this. I’m sorry if I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. There have been many times when I have treated Rod or Buddy or Trevor or Mike or Candice like less than adults or less than individuals. In my judgmental attitude I am making the same mistake that I am condemning others for. We all need to grow.

And a pps: I just found this helpful article for those of us who are unsure about etiquette when meeting a person with a disability:

My own words seem inadequate tonight.

This video, made by members of L’arche Cape Breton, says more about
the people I am learning to love than I could ever express:

“Whatever their gifts and limitations, all people are bound together
in a common humanity.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote quite a bit since I read it on a friend’s blog recently:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
…a passion to make, and make again
where such un-making reigns.”

(Adrienne Rich, Excerpt from Natural Resources
in Dreams of a Common Language)

I tend to be the kind of person who is easily overwhelmed by all that troubles me – both my own struggles, and the things I have learned are part of our human condition.  We live in a world that sometimes seems as if it is driven solely by selfishness, greed, evil.  And we have suffered because of this.  Sometimes we are involved in causing the suffering of others. Sometimes we witness the innocent suffering of people who have done nothing to deserve it.  Often we (or at least I) feel like we don’t know how to do anything to make it better.  Can we make it better? Can we cultivate a passion to perversely make, and make again in a world where such un-making reigns?  To believe in the possibility of love, hope, peace, goodness in the face of suffering?

I ask myself these questions as I sit across the table from a woman who needs me to patiently sit with her while she finishes her breakfast, more than an hour after everyone has finished and left the table.  Can I cultivate patience?  Can I be gentle and compassionate instead of hasty and short-tempered?  Can I learn to slow down enough to see the beauty in this quiet moment, and know that my to-do list is far less important that sharing a meal with my new friend?  Can I continue to sit here with her, making faces and laughing and communicating only through body language, since I don’t know sign language and she can’t hear my voice?  Her smile, with no extraordinary power, reconstitutes the world.

I am learning that language is far more than the words we speak. We’ve all been told this before.  But it is only through living with people who must rely on other forms of communication that I can really learn to listen to all that a person is saying.  We all have our own language… certain expressions, gestures, symbols, words, that we use to communicate our needs to one another.  I have to be patient because I am learning new languages, ones that may not seem intelligible at first, but are as full of meaning as the language that I use, maybe even more so.

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