Tomorrow is the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Clearly, we disabled folks need you – society, government, churches, schools, family and friends – to help us live full lives.
Although unable to work full time because of my neurological disorder, I nevertheless receive two-thirds of my former salary in disability payments from your taxes through the government, so I’m still able to pay my bills. I can travel from where I am sitting now all the way to the lap lanes at the Forest Park Pool without having to negotiate one curb or step because Congress passed the ADA, and our park district complied.
When they see me trying to cross Madison Street, even at an unregulated corner, drivers stop to let me cross when they see my cane. Rangers at the park give me rides in their golf carts when they notice that I’ve parked a long way from the pool. Strangers open doors for me. The Chamber of Commerce accepts me as a board member, even though my speech is slurred and I don’t have much business sense or experience. My church even lets me give a sermon once in awhile, not seeming to mind having to work a little harder than usual to understand my speech.
We handicapped need you all very much.
But the more I live as a handicapped person and relate to able-bodied people, the more I realize that you need us as much as we need you.
You certainly don’t need us to make money. Most of us can’t think or move fast enough to compete in the marketplace. If you hired us, we couldn’t perform up to industry standards. So what good are we, we who cannot produce and don’t have as much wealth as normal folk?
What we contribute – those of us who have done and are doing the hard work of making peace with our limitations – is that we are a daily walking reminder that at any time, you too could be in our situation. That’s the bad news we communicate. The good news we proclaim is that you can lose a lot in life, do the internal work of reaching a “new normal” and be as, if not more, at peace with life than before. We do need money to pay the bills. We don’t need as much money to live a full life as the advertising industry tries to tell us.
“Money can’t buy you love.” We’ve heard that from everyone from our grandmothers to the Beatles. But how many of us believe it? We should all be required to spend an hour a week working with the so-called disabled staff at the Progress Center on Madison Street and be reminded of how resilient and adaptable we humans can be. I don’t want to idealize the people there. They have good days and bad days just like the rest of us, but that’s my point.
Two things that irritate me are, on the one hand, being pitied and, on the other hand, being idealized. Most of us disabled people just want to be included, appreciated for what we can contribute and find common ground with others in the shared awareness that although you may now be “temporarily abled,” your day will come. Guaranteed.
But there is an even more profound reason why you need us. Listen to what Lauren Artress, author of Walking A Sacred Path, says:
“When it comes to spiritual matters, the ego must downshift. Once the tasks of the first half of life (career, marriage, and family) are accomplished, the ego must learn to relinquish control. This may be perceived as a threat to the ego, especially when it serves as a guardian against recognizing anger and fear. This is where we meet God. (p. 40)
I was raised to always be in control – of my emotions, my kids, my profession, my physical health, the health of my marriage … and then this disorder I have hit me and my delusional bubble burst. The result has been that, once I got used to making choices based on an accurate reading of reality, I’m making those choices much better and am more content with being a limited human being. God, it turns out, really is the only one capable of being ultimately in control. (Keep that in mind as you listen to upcoming campaign speeches.)
When I do my slow penguin waddle from the locker room to the lap lanes at the pool, little kids often stare at me. I don’t mind. They mean no harm. They are just curious. What makes me sad is that I assume their curiosity stems from people like me not being part of their everyday life, even though there are hundreds of us in this village alone.
Every May, as we get close to Summerfest, the chamber’s board of directors turns to me and says, “Reverend, you’re in charge of the weather.” The humor in that statement comes from all of us being aware of the gap between our longing for control and our actual contingency.
We need you and you need us. I appreciate living in this village where so many people accept and include me, appreciating what I can contribute and working with my limitations. What I’m beginning to realize is that we disabled folk also play the important spiritual role of reminding people of their basic vulnerability, a recognition that opens us up to the possibility of genuine community – even in the midst of all our differences. (Keep that in mind, as well, as you listen to upcoming campaign speeches.)
We really do need each other.
Keep up with new postings on my blog at oakpark.com/spiritualityethicsreligion
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.