Is Being Touched by Grace Just a Disability Thing?

Hello, readers,

I don’t know why I do it to myself. I can guess my own reaction pretty well just from the trailers. But on occasion, a part of me can’t help watching inspirational movies with characters who have disabilities in main roles. The only theory I have is, maybe I’m foolishly optimistic. Maybe I always hope that the character with a disability will be represented more fairly than last time. That was certainly the case with Touched by Grace, a movie by Parable Films that aired on Daystar TV this afternoon and will be airing all week. I don’t usually do movie reviews on here, but Touched by Grace merits one.

Let’s start with the good stuff, because there is some. As you might have guessed, TBG stars a character with a disability. The basic story goes like this: Kara, a typical teen, has been forced to transfer to a new school in senior year because of Dad’s job. She immediately meets a nice, attractive fellow senior named Brandon and some potential friends in Quinn and Skylar. Yet she also meets Grace, another senior who happens to have Down Syndrome. Grace and Kara are both artists who like to sketch and take photographs. Both desire Homecoming dates and to fit in at school. Grace is a real person, as much as the movie will let her be (we’ll get to that).

The movie also takes a good stand on not only bullying, but the value of PWD’s lives. In other words, this is not just about, “Don’t be mean to disabled people.” There is a discussion about the fact that PWDs are primarily seen as burdens in many people’s minds, that 90% of babies with Down Syndrome are aborted, and that these things are wrong. The message is clear: all life has value and deserves respect.

Okay, now I guess we’ve gotta deal with the tough stuff. The movie turns on the fulcrum of popularity vs. disability. Kara’s new friends Quinn and Skylar are the queen bees of Greenbriar High, and they make clear that they want nothing to do with Grace, her friend Ben who also has Down Syndrome, or any students they call “the R word.” In fact, it is implied that if Kara maintains her friendship with Grace, Skylar, Quinn, and others will make her life Hades. Skylar is seen rolling her eyes and making fun of Ben, whom she works with because of an “outreach program” (and we’ll get to that, too). She vocally expresses disdain for Grace and Ben being in “her” homecoming group and the possibility of riding to the big dance on a “short bus.” She and Quinn make fun of Grace, imitating her perceived voice and calling her a “mongoloid.” It’s a typical story arc in which the kids are stereotypical–good, bad, or handicapped (and therefore perfectly pure). And never the groups shall overlap or show each other’s characteristics. It’s so stereotypical, in fact, that both Skylar and Quinn are skinny, blonde, flip their hair, and talk in borderline Valley Girl voices.

(The next section contains spoilers):

If I could stop here, I would, but I feel it is imperative we talk about the ending of TBG. Without going into major detail, Skylar and Quinn rig the homecoming voting system so that Grace will be nominated for Homecoming Court. They think that no one will vote for her, but the plan backfires when everyone does. Grace is legitimately elected Queen, and the popular girls turn it into a horrible senior prank. The student body laughs at her as she sings “This Little Light of Mine” onstage at Skylar’s urging. Kara is blamed for the whole thing. Grace has a severe heart episode onstage because she, like some people with Down Syndrome, has a heart defect. Because Grace has no donor, she dies in the hospital, after a tear jerking forgiveness scene with Kara.

Kara, her parents, and a bunch of kids from school, including one-dimensional Christians who are only there to talk about how great Grace is, come to her funeral. At the funeral, the pastor makes the above-mentioned speech. But then he refers to Grace as “the least of these.” And if I wasn’t upset before, now I’m like, What the who???

Most people who read this review might say I’m being harsh or mean. I don’t intend to, really. Maybe I am, but let’s look at some reality here, folks.

-Grace *dies*. She exists to be a morality pet for “normal” kids like Kara. Even though her date Ben lives, he is a one-dimensional character, representative only of Down Syndrome. Grace and Ben are the only two characters with disabilities in the entire film who have speaking roles.

-The R-word and other slurs are used. Other than saying, “That’s messed up” or “Don’t say that, dude” nobody does anything to stop it, even and especially the Christian kids.

-Speaking of, Grace is the only character who openly discusses having faith in Jesus. This, along with her Purity Sue characterization, trivializes faith, especially the faith of PWDs who embrace Jesus, in the worst way.

-Kara’s own mother, and other adults, act openly uncomfortable around students with disabilities. This is never discussed or dealt with; the adults never show regret or repentance, or understand why they should. Similarly, Skylar never gets a comeuppance for engineering the prank. She is forgiven, which I am fine with. But nobody ever says, “There are consequences for these actions” and makes her face them.

-Grace is treated as fragile and childlike. In one scene, she begins crying and having an asthma/heart episode. Kara frets. Brandon essentially bribes Grace to stop crying and take her medicine by promising if she does, he will get her a Homecoming date. That is so demeaning I cannot begin to tell you.

Finally, we need to talk about the “least of these” thing. Jesus did say that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. He did mean the needy, people with disabilities, and so on, because that was His culture. But I do not think He ever meant PWDs are lesser people or “the least.” Yes, PWDs need to be touched by grace, but don’t we all? We are all the least of these. I’ll admit it: as a human, I freaking suck. If we’re smart, we’ll all admit that. God save us all. Touched by grace is not something only PWDs need, or that only PWDs do. It’s open for everybody, and that’s the message I wish these movies sent. Dear Parable Films and other such companies, please make your characters with disabilities three-dimensional. Let them be the main characters, represent faith realistically, and teach us the way we all teach each other.

Oh yeah by the way: keep them alive.

May we all seek and find grace today, and may we all allow it to wash us clean.


Shame Off You: Embracing Life with a Disability, Rejecting Shame

Hello readers,

Remember that post I said I was convicted to write but didn’t feel ready to tackle? This is it.

I felt it apropos to deal with this topic in February, with Valentine’s Day coming up. Valentine’s Day is about love, which in turn leads to positive words and positive emotions. Yet as we know, many people with disabilities deal regularly with negative emotions. One of these is shame.

I have a confession to make. I have been ashamed of having CP my whole life.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I didn’t cause it. I have nothing to be ashamed of. The shame in itself is what’s bad, and it dishonors God. I’ve heard those things over and over and yet, I can never quite kick the shame. Sometimes I even resent people for telling me not to feel it because they don’t know. They’re not 30 and living with their folks because they are unable to drive and their town has no resources and their folks have little to no extra money. They didn’t get kicked out of jobs because of their disability, get judged, or watch other people get the things they wanted. They don’t struggle to do things little kids can do with no effort.

Well, while that’s a natural reaction, I’ve decided I don’t want to stay there. It will not make me a better person. In fact, it could make me a bad person.

Have any of you ever seen Once Upon a Time? If not, I highly recommend it; it’s a great show. Anyway, I’m not gonna spoil anything, but in Season 3, we meet Zelena, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West (yes, that one). We find out her famous green skin comes from envy, and perhaps, buried shame (that’s my take, not the writers’). She watched another character get what she wanted–every bit of it. She was given up as a baby, unloved, and judged. And given every opportunity to change, she just couldn’t do it.

Seeing Zelena got to me, and it’s not just because we both love emeralds.

Now, I am not saying that if you have a disability and you feel shame, you will become a Zelena or another bad person. That’s a natural emotion and you need to have a safe place to express it. But I am here to tell you and myself now: the people, the voices, the circumstances, that shamed you?

They are wrong. Shame off you.

What is it about your particular situation that causes shame? Is it where you live or with whom? Is it something you do, that “experts” call noncompliance or a “behavior?” Is it that no one seems to see the real you?

Whatever it is, do all you can to change it, reaching out for help when needed. If you can’t change it, or if the situation won’t change despite what you and others do, it’s time to be proactive. Learn to say, “No more shame. I am worthy. I am loved. I am able. I am PROUD of myself.” If you’ve got a higher power or a holy book, those help tremendously, too. Deal with the shame, the envy, the resentment–as much and as often as you need to. But then, walk on.

Shame. Off. You.

Whose Experience Is This, Anyway?

Hello, readers,

Lately, it seems like every time I think about writing a post for this blog–or any of my own stuff, for that matter–work piles up before I can do it. It’s kind of like those snow drifts that blew in a couple of weeks ago. But I’m off today and back to start another month, so let’s get going.

You’ll recall that last time, we talked a little bit about the fact that there are a lot of narratives out there about the experiences of persons with disabilities’ caregivers and loved ones. I don’t discount those for a second. They are valuable, and they need to be heard. I even own a book or two that chronicles some of these experiences. Yet I continue to ask myself: are we hearing enough from PWDs about their own experiences?

I would say no, for a variety of reasons. The first, of course, is that a lot of PWDs are told not to express themselves or that their stories can’t be heard because they can’t talk or write. In this age of ever-advancing technology, that’s an excuse and I’m tired of hearing it. Not every PWD has to write a memoir, but even if they tell you only one or two things, they are sharing lives and experiences and thoughts with you. Respect that.

Other reasons, I think, are a little more complicated. Some PWDs don’t know how to share their experiences, or they don’t feel worthy to do so, or they think no one wants to know about them. This last one is something I struggle with, mostly because I write for a living. One of my old professors once said good writing is life with all the boring parts removed–actually, I think he got that quote from another writer. I’m not yet past the idea that for general audiences, my life would have a lot of boring parts.

But then again, aren’t the boring parts where we learn the most about ourselves and other people? For example, when we see a boy with PANDAS (a medical condition that causes strep antibodies to attack the brain, resulting in OCD and Tourette’s symptoms) struggle to deal with compulsions, doesn’t that tell us something about living with a misunderstood condition? When we hear about a girl being abused in a group home, yet not believed because she is supposedly manipulative, shouldn’t that show us there are flaws in how we think and how we treat our fellow people? When we “hear” the thoughts of a man with Down Syndrome, even if they’re about things we think are too simple, shouldn’t that give us a different view of the world?

So, what would it look like for PWDs to tell us about their own experiences? I can only speak directly to mine, but I think there are certain things we definitely need to hear more about, such as:

-What it’s like to triumph in some ways, yet struggle in others, and have people think that they should be reversed (i.e., as happened in my case, who cares about triumphing in the classroom if you can’t tie shoes)?

-What it’s like to be treated as a hero because you have a disability, not based on merit

-The dreams, hopes, and inner thoughts of PWDs. This is the biggie and why we need more stories.

-How faith and other virtues play roles in PWDs’ lives. For example, how does it affect you to be taught that your disability, the hardest circumstance you may ever face, is God’s will? Do you ever wonder if God has a special plan for everybody, but not you? I know I do.

Of course, for these stories to be told, we need ways to get them out there, and we need to accept new ways. I personally enjoy writing, but not every PWD is a writer. Some can draw beautiful, expressive pictures. Others can use assistive speaking devices. Others use sign language, music, or drama. There’s a whole world of mediums out there, and we need to make sure PWDs have access to them.

This month, we celebrate Black History Month. Just like blacks, or gays, or Asians, or Latinos, PWDs have a history, a past, a present, and a future. Let’s commit to learning about it through fiction, nonfiction, and all kinds of stories. Once we have the knowledge, let’s be willing to share it–even, yes, “the boring parts.” Because the boring parts are really the crucial pieces that make up a life and make it unique.