TDTL: Why it’s a Crock, and What we can Do about It

Okay, I know what you guys are asking: what does TDTL stand for? It’s a spin on TSTL–Too Stupid to Live–an acronym I’ve heard used to describe simpering heroines and shallow heroes in badly written novels. TDTL, then, stands for Too Disabled to Live. Sadly, I’m not just talking about eugenics here. TDTL often has nothing to do with killing off disabled people, although I firmly believe we kill their hopes, dreams, thoughts, and dignity every day without knowing or caring. TDTL has everything to do with the severity of one’s disability, and how society tends to look at it.

I would venture to say if you guys met me on the street, most of you would not automatically think, “Poor woman” or “What’s the point to her life?” I would venture to say if you met a child whose only disability was, say, blindness, deafness, or wheelchair use, you wouldn’t say, “What’s the use of educating them? They can’t benefit.” You know better than that, right?

Ah…but what if the person with a disability you encountered had the body of a twenty-year-old, but the mind of a five-year-old? What if they truly were incontinent? Unable to feed themselves? Allegedly–and I’ll come back to that in a minute–unable to understand anything beyond the content of Sesame Street? In fact, let’s push it further. Let’s say that adult had the mind of a two-year-old or newborn. Were I a gambling lady, I’d be willing to lay bets that most of you, if faced with the possibility of that person in your classroom or workplace, would think, “Say what? What’s the point?” In fact, you might also think, “If there’s a God, and if He made people like this, then He’s selfish and cruel.” I know–because I used to think like that.

Don’t give me that look. You think Christ-followers don’t doubt? Don’t argue with their Lord? Let me tell ya, honey, I do. I’ve sat in my prayer spot and asked, “God, why did you allow the Holocaust? Six million or more people–including innocent kids–gone. Wiped out, for no reason other than they were the wrong religion, the wrong race, didn’t have the right abilities, whatever. And if you say only Christians can attain Heaven–then, dear God, where are they?”

“God, why communism? Why the allowance of totalitarian, dictator governments? Why hunger? Why allow so much of the world’s population to live and die, never having had more for a meal than rice and water? Why abuse no one knows about until it’s too late? Why cults, and AIDS, and sexual predators, and cancer?”

And–oh, yes, because this is personal–God, why disability? I can cope with mine. But why do you allow babies to be born, knowing that in mind, they’ll never be more than babies? Why do you promise hopes and futures–yet, in an institution for the disabled, as late as 2001, a man was punished for standing up to an abusive aide by having his catheter stuffed in his mouth? True story–the guy’s throat “clogged with his own urine” before he managed to call for help. How about another true story: of a woman in an institution attacked by fire ants, not treated for days, while the staff swore they didn’t know about the infestation that had been persisting for quite some time in the building? And while we’re at it: WHY are people allowed to determine if those with severe disabilities are TDTL?

I probably won’t get the answers I want from God until I go from this life to the next. For now, He has asked a frustrating question: “Are you willing to trust Me?” And because I truly believe He is good, I will take that risk. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help change society’s view of those with disabilities who are wrongly, cruelly perceived as “drains on the system” because they don’t have certain basic physical skills.

First of all, I’d like to propose something radical. Those people with disabilities we say can’t learn or think because they have the minds of newborns or toddlers? No, they can still think and learn and respond. For one thing, I don’t think we often truly know what their IQs are. I don’t think we truly know what these people are capable of because we look at their physical inabilities and judge them by those. “Well, if he can’t even be potty-trained, what’s the point, right?” Wrong. If you want an example, take a look at the fictional, but thought-provoking book Getting Life. It’s next on my reading list, and concerns a woman named Emily.

Emily is an adult with severe disabilities. She is unable to talk and has “sat like a lump,” according to the amazon.com summary, in a  nursing home all her life, where she is abused, and her true thoughts are not considered. But one day, the abuse goes too far. Emily ends up in the hospital, where a discerning physician figures out there’s more to her than anyone knows. He begins the process of “liberating” her from the home. Meanwhile, Emily, whose mind is being considered for the first time, moves toward “Getting Life”–and does so successfully. No, she may not be living in a mansion or working as a rocket scientist by the end of the book. But she has a real life–her way.

Here’s another example: nonfiction, written by teacher Frankie Germany in Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul. When Germany’s district adopted inclusion, it meant Kim, a student who’d previously been in a school for “retarded” children (ooh, how I hate that word), was going into a real fifth-grade classroom for the first time. Kim’s IQ was “estimated to be about 40.” She’d been passed from foster homes to institutions before a recent adoption. Germany describes her this way:

“She walked with a shuffling gait resembling that of a prehistoric man…her hair was pulled up in a Pebbles style. Spittle drooled from her mouth. She clutched a dirty baby doll in her hand… Whatever will I do with this child in my classroom?”

The school told Germany to “do the best you can under the circumstances,” revealing little or no faith in Kim. And Germany could’ve embraced the same attitude. Instead, he (or she; I’m not quite sure since “Frankie” is a gender-neutral name), swung into real action. Two sweet, mature girls volunteered to sit with Kim in class and help her appropriately. The class reacted as if Kim–and her spittle, and her doll–were a normal part of the classroom. And little by little, Kim changed. Germany writes that:

“She walked more upright. She rarely drooled anymore. She began to experiment with a pencil and crayons and became interested in books and magazines….she learned to trace over letters to write her name. At lunch, Kim no longer ate with her fingers, but used a fork or spoon. Renee and Deidre [the girls who sat with her] taught her to wipe her mouth with a napkin.”  And one day, Kim approached her teacher during a spelling test. Having learned to use a vocabulary, rather than pointing and saying one word for what she wanted, Kim said to her teacher, “Kim say words.” She was allowed to help her teacher give the spelling tests from that time on.

All this, from a child who the school didn’t seem to see the point in educating. Who was, frankly, considered TDTL. All because a teacher saw her as a child first, and instead of throwing up his hands and saying, “Let special ed deal with her,” welcomed her into his class. I remind you, this child’s IQ was estimated at 40. And yes, perhaps the only thing she really “learned” was to write her name. But because she did learn that, the school did not fail her. She was in a regular room. She had a caring, not patronizing or abusive, teacher. And she…had..friends.

But you say, “Wait, Chick. That’s good, but what if the person with a disability truly can’t think on a level above a baby? Do you expect them to be educated?”

Yes, I do. As much as they can grasp an education, let’s give it to them. Let’s face it: we often treat babies better than adults who “can’t” think on a level above them. We let babies listen to Mozart, read to them from poetry, novels, and “real” books, and let them fingerpaint, because we know these activities will make those babies happy, and they will absorb new experiences, new thoughts, through them. Why not for the severely disabled, too?

“Wait, Chick. You’re saying we shouldn’t make a big deal out of a grown man who poops in his pants?”

I am–if what you mean by “big deal” is looking at him and thinking, “Thank God I’m not like that!” If what you mean is, “How dare you ask me to provide for him–it costs too much.” Oh, does it, now? In reality, recent budgets show that diapers cost about 30 cents apiece–if a greedy market doesn’t drive them up to $8.00 a package. And that, my dear, has more to do with corporate greed than disability.

“YOU’RE SAYING WE SHOULD LET THESE PEOPLE WORK? LIVE IN THEIR OWN HOMES?”

Calm down. I don’t want to be sued for giving you a heart attack or stroke–and by the way, that stroke would “disable” you. Yes. If people with severe disabilities can work in any form, then we should allow them to work. We should find ways to modify our work places so they can be considered a contribution to the workforce, not a “special” worker to be compensated for. They should be paid fair wages, and allowed to use the money the way they want, as much as is feasible. (If they truly cannot handle money, they should be taught how, as much as possible. The help they get in handling money should come from a person who sees them as just like anyone else who–heaven forbid!–really isn’t sure how to balance a checkbook the first time out). And yes, people with disabilities should be allowed to live in the most natural environment they can–NOT the artificial construct of an institution, where their purpose is to be “cared for,” not to thrive, learn, grow, and live.

Of course, you say, there is always the possibility of the person born without a brain. The person whose disability has rendered him or her a complete vegetable. What then?

Well, I think you know what I’ll tell you not to do–pity them or say “thank God that’s not me.” Stick them in a “facility.” I will tell you: give them all the dignity they deserve–which is all the dignity you have, as a person without disabilities. Let them experience any and all things they want to–or that you would want to, put in their place. Because under that disability lies a person. And what’s the point of their life?

Well, think about it. What’s the point of yours?

Yeah, thought so.

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