A Person with Feelings, or a Visual Aid?:”Using” People with Disabilities to “Teach ‘Them’ a Lesson”

Hello, readers,

You may recall that sometimes on this blog, we talk about how people with disabilities are often viewed through the lens of certain double standards. Such as, “I, an able-bodied person, can use my dishwasher, but Jane, who has a disability, must wash her dishes within 20 minutes of eating or lose the right to live independently.” Or the one that says, “A child who has trouble with reading needs a tutor, unless or until that child is diagnosed with some form of disability. Then we pull out resource rooms, special education, and in the most severe cases, life-skills curricula until the child ‘ages out’ at 22.” Well, today, let’s talk about another of these double standards. This one occurs when a person with a disability is used as a visual aid.

What do I mean by that? I’ll show you. As you know, I sometimes get inspiration from other writers’ blogs. One of my favorite authors is a woman named Ginny Yttrup, and on Facebook the other day, she posted a link to a blog she likes. It’s by a woman named Jamie, and it’s called “The Worst Missionary.” Now, as far as I know, Jamie is probably a great missionary, whether she means that in the sense of traditional foreign missions or within her own neighborhood or state. However, she does have a lot to say about the way people, especially evangelical Christians, treat others. One of her posts dealt with the way mainstream, middle-class Christians tend to view and treat those who are impoverished.

Jamie describes the situation as one where parents or relatives may take a child or teen who has, up to then, been privileged, to a foreign country on a mission trip, or even to an impoverished American area. The parents view this as an opportunity to teach their middle-class children that they are fortunate and need to be grateful for what they have rather than constantly asking for more. In itself, not exactly a bad thing–Americans are spoiled, and if we’re smart, we’ll admit it. But here’s where the intentions break down. The “missionaries,” however you want to define that term, approach their impoverished counterparts and say, in words or actions, to their own kids, “See? Your life is great–you could be living like this.” Then, as Jamie describes, the adults in the picture say, through words and/or actions, “Here, have a package of food, a toothbrush, and a pair of used shoes”–while their own kid stands there in brand-new Nikes.

That did something to me as a Christian. Days later, I’m still questioning our motivation behind taking kids and teens on that type of mission trip at all. Is it simply to shame them, rather than for the purer motives we claim? Evidence would suggest we’re all just pros at guilt trips, not mission trips. But I’m not a pastor, and I’m not Super-Christian. Nor have I ever been to a Third World country, so I don’t feel qualified to make judgments about this issue. In fact, I’m not qualified to make judgments about much of anything, which I have to remind myself as an advocate and a writer. Thus, I’m going to present my next point as non-judgmentally as I can, but I hope it causes you to think.

How many times have we, or do we, do the same thing to people with disabilities?

Of course, we all say we’re too polite, and too politically correct, to come right out, point a finger at a person with a visible disability, and tell ourselves or our children, “At least you aren’t like that!” But how often do we think it? How often do we use that rationale to make ourselves feel better when we have a bad day because the washing machine’s on the fritz, we took a pay cut, and darn it, Starbucks got our coffee order wrong again? People with disabilities even do it to each other; I used to look at people with more severe physical disabilities, or mental disabilities, and feel not much else besides relief.

Besides which, we often try to “help” people with disabilities by handing them the equivalent of used shoes and a toothbrush. “Oh, you want a job? I know a sheltered workshop downtown,” or, “I know an employer who’s looking for help–if you have a job coach to monitor you.” Or how about, “You want leisure time? Here, go to this animated movie”–as an adult in your twenties. Or, “How about going bowling”–for the twentieth time. (I don’t recall if I’ve asked this before, but what’s the connection between people with disabilities and bowling)?

People with disabilities are being used, folks–as visual aids for what the general population does NOT want to be. That in itself is disturbing enough. What’s even more disturbing is, the “visual aid” mentality WORKS, because so many disabilities live artificial, monitored, limited lives that none of us, given a choice, would ever want. Why can’t we, instead, work together to change the picture, so that people with disabilities are presented as successful, intelligent–darn it, happy–rather than comfortable and cared for, but pitiable?

They’re not objects, folks. Quit using these people as negative examples. And then give them, and yourself, some real help, by changing the picture.


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