When I was little, I was afraid of people who were not like me. Not run-away-and-hide afraid, but intimidated, nervous, certain those people did not really approve of me. What kinds of people scared me? Soldiers scared me. I can remember being at the VA hospital (both my grandfathers served in WWII), and being nervous whenever I saw a soldier in uniform. Not sure what to say or how to act. Wanting to stare. Certain that there was a right thing to do, and that I was not doing it.
It wasn’t the guns, the soldierly-ness, that intimidated me. I was equally nervous around my sister’s softball team. All those girls in neat ponytails and shiny yellow uniforms, their caps dotted with stickers for every something important that they did, gathered together, important, capable, competent. They were probably perfectly nice people, but I didn’t know how to act around them. I kept my distance, tried not to make eye contact.
I was little then, and shy. I’m a grown-up now. No longer afraid of girls on softball teams.
Last feast of the Holy Trinity, our parish priest explained that the Trinity is a model for human relationships. In the Trinity, he observed, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.” To be Catholic is to put off “us-and-them” thinking. To recognize that all people are “us”. No one can be pushed off into some category of Other People, who are not deserving of our respect and concern. Compassion, works of mercy, we perform them not because ‘those poor other people are so desperate, so pitiful’, but because ‘they are one of us.’
I’m late to the party on the Blogging Against Disablism Day blogfest. The official day was Friday; luckily the blogfest-manager has compassion on people like me who blog on the other side of the International Week Line. “Disablism” is a word used to describe discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities; analogus to racism or sexism or what have you. Not a topic I write about much, or even think about much; the notion of equal rights for all people has always seemed to so obvious to me that I half-wonder what there is to say.
But I think us-versus-them gets to the heart of it. As I see it, modern prejudice against people with certain types of disabilities finds its origin in the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The parents who were pushed into comitting their disabled children to institutions in the 1950’s, were the ones who, as children in the 1930’s, attended state fairs with “Fitter Families” contests and displays on the importance of good breeding for the strength of the human race. A disasterous era whose stain on society is still felt today.
How to get over that sense of ‘otherness’? That feeling that certain types of people are fundamentally different? It requires some growing up. A realization that those “other” people are just ordinary people. Not a case of ‘that could be me’ but a case of ‘we are in the same boat’. Nothing special at all above and beyond the ordinary specialness of being human. And nothing less, either, than the extraordinary specialness of being human.