Monday, 6 April 2009

What makes us think disability is a deficiency?

On Friday I went to a restaurant in London where you eat in the pitch black - weird I know but bear with me I am going somewhere with this. The idea is that when you can't see your other senses are heightened and your experience of food greatly improved. A friend of mine had recommended this place as a good and somewhat unusual venue for a Birthday meal. There was a group of nine of us. I had been told before hand that we would be assigned a blind waiter for the evening and that the reason for this was that the blind are the only people capable of navigating their way around the restaurant because it is so dark - I thought this was a clever idea but that was as deep as my thought went. My friend who made the initial recommendation also warned me that while we are used to our sight adjusting in the dark at this restaurant her eyes had not adjusted at all and she had not been able to see anything - no shadows, no shapes just absolute black.

I had never considered the difference between darkness and absolute pitch black before-where you can see nothing whatsoever - I am not sure I had even thought there was a difference- I have now realised that there is. Before entering the main dining area we met our waiter Ryan and we were asked to stand in a line with our hand on the right shoulder of the person in front us. Ryan then led us through a fairly dark corridor into the pitch black. I don't know how they achieve it but it is the case that I have never experienced any darkness like it-  dense black - I could see absolutely nothing and my eyes never adjusted during the two hour meal. When we entered I felt intensely vulnerable - there were obviously other people eating and I was overwhelmed by how loud everything seemed and how disorientating it was. Ryan led us clearly, warned us when we were approaching curtains and seated each of us at the table. It was necessary for him to place our hands on the chair and to guide us into it. I couldn't tell where any of my friends were, it was very strange and we were totally helpless - if we needed the toilet we had to raise our hand and a waiter would lead us out. We had lost all power. Truly fascinating - but now I am coming (at last!) to my point. Ryan was able to laugh and joke with us, to see to our needs and care for us - to ensure we got the food we ordered and he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.

This may seem like a small feat but it makes a huge point. Able bodied people are often of the opinion that a disabled person is in need of their pity because they believe disabled people have a deficiency that makes their lives less...livable. Our society questions whether children with disabilities should even be born - what is the point if they are just going to be miserable?

What an incredibly arrogant and blind (in the true sense of the word) assumption. While it may seem to be a small thing this restaurant stands to make this point - all nine of us were utterly useless in that space of darkness, given ten years I don't think I would have found my way out let alone waited on tables and served a total of 60 diners in one session. Yes able bodied people are fine until they find themselves challenged beyond their capacity. That is exactly what this place did and it showed that far from being disabled Ryan and his colleagues were highly able- there was no deficiency here - only efficiency - life had challenged them so much that they did not need sight. The deficiency is ours. I am not suggesting that sight is a bad thing or that we all walk around with eye patches- I am just making a point about the attitude of our supposedly equality loving world does not make room for actual equality- it strives for a sameness which devalues and disables all of us by failing to recognise both our abilities and our disabilities as aspects that make us real, struggling human beings. It is often our disabilities that make us great because they challenge us

It is also worth noting that because we were eating in the pitch black we all ate very carefully and to our amazement not one of us split anything on ourselves. Interesting. Even we had become more aware of our movement and the way we ate.

My eldest brother, as most will probably be aware, had no thumbs but his writing and sketching surpassed anything I have ever been capable of. He was incredibly precise and aware of detail. Far from being a deficiency his lack of thumbs made him very attentive to the formation of each word and picture. Equally, Jean Vanier who begun the L'Arche communities found in the adults he lived with life's greatest teachers. Having spent over forty years living with adults with learning disabilities he argues that these men and women are the people closest to Christ because their love of life and other human beings is without affectation or agenda- they give a tremendous amount- a million times more than they take. That is not to say that those in his communities are perfect - often they have been rejected by their families or institutionalised and they suffer a great deal because of this. However, in Vanier's homes able bodied people live as assistants, there is no differentiation between assistants and those they  assist - Vanier argues that the assistants are often in more need of his help then those they are supposed to be helping. And it is often those with the 'disability' that nurse these assistants back to health - the great Catholic writer Henri Nouwen went to L'Arche and found love and life there which helped him overcome crippling depression- he even wrote a book about the boy he was assingned to care for and I would recommend it if you are interested (just click on the title which will take you to Amazon) its called Adam

My ultimate point is how can we be so ignorant as not to recognise the realities of life and humanity? British society constantly repeats phrases about diversity and the value of diversity. Yet at the same time it would see a disabled child aborted legally up until birth because that baby is different - the wrong kind of diversity. How can you even claim equality when there are different laws for an 'able' and 'disabled' child? I suppose that what made me want to put this into words in the first place was seeing my friend's baby scan today - she is 6 months pregnant and you could see her little baby  clearly - I am just devastated by the fact that a baby with a disability can be thrown away and that the world will have lost a potentially beautiful human being with capacities that someone 'able bodied' may not have possessed. People talk of the arrogance of the Nazis who said that some people did not deserve life because they were not of the same value- how can this society claim a distinction?
Our values can only change when our hearts change and we admit that disability does not equate to deficiency - life is far too great, complex and mysterious to allow that.


Jennifer said...

A very wise and insightful post. It's absolutely true. Disability frightens us, and so we need to declare it inferior so we can justify our instinct to avoid it. Your dining experience sounds fascinating. What an incredible restaurant!
I hope you have a magnificent Holy Week! God bless you!

Monica @ Monkey Musings said...

Beautiful post! Love your new blog layout.

SQUELLY said...

Thanks to you both! It was an incredible restaurant - it started in France and is called Dans Le Noir. I wish you both a wonderful holy week. God bless!

JoannaB said...

I think these very good points could be applied to people with mental health problems as well, not just physical disabilities.

SQUELLY said...

Absolutely! after all many of our most wonderful saints had their greatest periods of insight- insight that has benefited generations of people- when they were struggling with their mental health.

~Joseph the Worker said...

My wife was born without one of her thumbs as well. Thanks for reminding us about the blessings of disabilities.

Kim said...

Wow, what an insightful, thought-provoking post. I find it amazing that the blind waiters could navigate around the restaurant so well and bring everyone the correct dish, and know when someone raises their hands to use the restroom. It is amazing how other senses, such as sight, touch, and smell can become so heightened. I worked with a man who had "horrible" CP, yet he was such a loving, wonderful man. He wrote his story and titled it "Differently Abled." That's what people who are "disabled" are.

SQUELLY said...

Thank you! what a beautiful way to describe 'disability' and thanks so much for your comment too Joseph


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