Growing up disabled

"As we proclaim every time we share the Eucharist, we are all the Body of Christ."

A new book came out this year. Growing up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay OAM, tells the diverse stories of people whose disability has shaped – and been shaped by – their childhoods. One of the many extraordinary things about this book is that despite the diversity of stories told, a key theme lies behind most (if not all) of them. That is the realisation – in spite of the very different messages coming from society – that disability is not an aberration or abnormality. It is, in fact, a part of what it means to be a person.

Justin with Carly at the Growing up Disabled in Australia book launch.

It is a theme which resonates strongly with my own personal experience. Blindness certainly has its challenges but I would not want a “cure”. My lack of vision has shaped me as surely as my singing voice, my talent for languages or my good memory. Indeed, the latter seems to have been a useful adaptation to a world where objects are permanently hidden from view. A sighted me would not be “me” in any recognisable sense – he would have different gifts and abilities and different weaknesses.

And yet, I am not alone. Our faith reminds us – if any reminder were needed – that we are not God. We are limited people with strengths and weaknesses which ebb and flow over time. Most peoples’ experience includes the gaining of skills as they move from infancy to adulthood – and the losing of them as bodies and minds age. Our Saviour, the Christ who became one with the human condition, did not magically assume perfection. Instead, he became heir to all the complexity, limitation and physical frailty that human flesh could throw at him, including torture and death on a Cross. As Deaf people well know, the sign for Christ is the middle finger of each hand placed on the palm of the other – tracing out the wounds of the nails he retained even on rising from the dead.

Despite these well-trodden truths, we comfort ourselves with the lies that physical perfection and mental brilliance are within the grasp of everyone who would only try harder, earn more, pay more, apply themselves more. If the imagined ideal is within the grasp of the individual then we don’t need to look at the needs of our brothers and sisters – or at the flaws in a society which is designed to work for some, but not for others. Disabilities are the faults or misfortunes of others – and not attributes of real people who have a real claim on our hearts.

And yet, here we are – all of us – with gifts and talents, strengths and weaknesses. Life is not a single-player game. Instead, all of us have the opportunity to support each other, to benefit from each other’s strengths and share each others’ weaknesses. As we proclaim every time we share the Eucharist, we are all the Body of Christ.

Fr Justin Glyn SJ