Broad Ripple UMC in Indianapolis takes part in a neighborhood festival every July. This year, as a fund-raiser for a suicide prevention group, the church presented a choral concert and included speakers about various problems confronting the city. What follows are from Tim's prepared notes, addressing the audience about living with a disability.
During the week, if you watched the news, you’ve seen us on the tube, on Facebook, and all the other places, or you’ve heard about it. People with wheelchairs are blocking hallways, empty wheelchairs are sitting in pathways, and people are crawling up steps or otherwise getting in the way to make a point about access, health care, and the infrastructure of getting around.
(Exaggerated voice): the crips are getting restless. Whatever will we do?
We have a word for that: ableism.
Is it a new word to you?
Ableism is the presumption that “normal” (whatever that means) is the way for everyone to go, while anyone who doesn’t fit that definition has “special needs.” It takes many forms, such as ramps that are too steep, congressmen suggesting that I should have made better health choices to avoid pre-existing conditions (sure, before I was even born), being treated more as a medical diagnosis than a person to be included in society, or not assuming competence.
So when asked to speak living with a disability here, I thought the best thing to do would be to keep a diary and go through some notes. Here’s some of what I came up with.
· In the early years of school, the assumption that since I couldn’t walk well, I couldn’t learn, and the rationalization when I showed them wrong
· Learning later that a degree in history didn’t make me qualified to teach it, since I can’t coach football
· The job notice for a computer-based teaching job that required the ability to lift 50 pound loads and carry them up stairs
· Other job interviews with hurried, barely audible discussion, sometimes followed by an embarrassed “let’s use this room” or “oh, we just filled that job”
· The last couple of years, when I go to work, the guard meets me at the door, because it weighs too much for me to wrestle with opening it, and the power door has repeatedly misfired and tried to crunch my ankles
· Like JJ in Speechless, a trip to the store means dodging the people who apparently can’t see me and walk into me, while others jump right in front of me in a hurry, like a track hurdle
· Wondering what someone was thinking when they placed a floor-mounted grab rail right down the middle of the stall in a restroom
· Restaurants that, despite a large number of empty and convenient tables up front, can only find us a cramped booth next to a drafty door off to the side
· Other restaurants where the server asks my wife what I want. Her favorite answer a few years ago was “he’s a graduate student at … ask him.”
· Ongoing struggle with a hotel chain that can’t figure out that a towel rack isn’t a grab bar, and it takes more than that to be accessible, or even that we reserve accessible rooms because we need them
· Conversations with some friends who were they can’t join churches because the Bible states that “faith comes by hearing,” so Deaf people aren’t able to have faith
· Conversations and my own experience with seminary students and pastors who state that I can’t “run the race” of faith or need to be healed to show my faith before I can join
· Rooms whose doors are just an inch or two too narrow to get through
· The notes kept of a committee meeting a couple of years ago by someone with an intellectual disability: the committee talked about a bunch of stuff, and we met in an incredibly beautiful room that showed God’s light in so many ways.
Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. We are so caught up in differences and making up schemes to classify them that we forget that each of us shows God’s light in a unique way.
Or, as one of my favorite cartoons put it, a little girl asks her mother “what’s normal?”
She hears in reply, “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.”