People like us29 Nov 2023
In praying for persons with disabilities in December, Pope Francis is asking that we are given the gift of sight to recognise the full potential of every human being.
Pope Francis’ December prayer intention for persons with disabilities coincides with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December).
The theme of the International Day puts disabilities into a broader context of how society affects them and must change to meet them. Pope Francis focuses on people’s personal needs. Both approaches are necessary.
Some disabilities affect individual persons but are made doubly disabling by society. A person who has lost the use of their legs in an accident, for example, should be able to have the same educational opportunities as someone who can walk. But if their school provides only stairs and not ramps or lifts, they will not be able to attend class and so will be doubly disadvantaged. Similarly, a young person with an acquired brain injury that affects their mobility and communication but not their intelligence will be doubly disadvantaged if placed in a home for people with dementia. Society can either help overcome the effects of disadvantage or intensify them.
In neither of these cases were the school architects nor health officials necessarily cruel. They probably just did not notice. For that reason, Pope Francis prays that people living with disabilities should be the centre of attention in society, and not placed at its edges to be thought of when everything else was decided. If they are at the centre, schools and hospitals will be built in a way that caters for their needs, facilities provided for their special needs, and supportive communities shaped around them.
Pope Francis also insists that it is not enough for us to provide facilities for people. We must also enable them to reach their full potential as human beings by taking possession of their lives and contributing actively to society. In our own society the publicity given to athletes with various disadvantages and the public celebration of their success recognises this need. We are encouraged to see them, not as different from or lesser than ourselves, but as one with us as they tell their stories of what they had to overcome to reach their goals.
This emphasis on participation in society has also been a blessing for many persons with intellectual and other disabilities. For many years they were housed together in separate institutions and the object of people’s care and not as persons who can take some responsibility for making choices about their own lives. Now they are more generally encouraged to live and study with other children in school and to see themselves as valued and active members of the school community. Their presence may help other children to value people who are different so that both they and the children with disabilities benefit.
Underlying the Pope’s prayers and the theme of the World Day of Persons with Disabilities is the need in all societies to see people with disability as persons like us, with the same desires and feelings. When confronted with people who are different, we can easily feel uneasy and afraid of them. That leads us to stay away from them, and to join others in mocking them. We then become less humane, they become less able to trust, and we all cease to grow. At the heart of our faith is that they are, and should be loved, like ourselves.