Saint Disability Day: Why are PWDs So Often Portrayed as Saints?

Hello, readers,

I would say top o’ the afternoon, but I hear actual Irish people find that expression silly and offensive. I can’t say I blame them; I guess that’s like non-Southerners assuming that all us people from the South say “howdy” when we mean “hi.” That being said, I do take the opportunity St. Patrick’s Day presents to embrace my Irish heritage. I also took it as an opportunity to go through this blog’s March archives in search of a new idea.

Like the proverbial pot of gold, I found one. I felt it would work as a blog bonus. On this saint’s day, let’s talk about saints. Specifically, let’s talk about the fact that in books, the media, and sometimes in real life, PWDs are portrayed as saints, psychic, or something in that vein.

I’m not saying this is always wrong. For example, if we didn’t have the PWDs featured in Bible stories, we might not know as much about Jesus’ healing capabilities (I’m not touching the implications of those stories because we have before, and that’s just how ancient Israel thought of disability). There are patron Catholic saints of certain disabilities–for example, my research revealed there is a cerebral palsy patron, St. Giles. It’s not even wrong to show a compassionate or spiritual character with a disability in the media. Just as PWDs should not be excluded from anything else, they are not excluded from feeling compassion or loving a God (whatever manifestation that is, although they are often portrayed in Judeo-Christian media).

As we know, the problem comes in when the character or even real-life person is too saintly, too perfect. An example might be Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, it’s Dickens, but in today’s world, would we really expect the kid to be that sweet and forgiving all the time? Personally, if a cruel boss was always taking my dad’s time and I was perpetually ill, I’d be rather ticked off!

I’d like to take this one step further, though. One of my frequent readers once asked the question: if X character with a disability is not saintly or psychic or spiritual, do they even have a place in the story? (Some characters, such as Robert Whitlow’s eponymous Jimmy, talk to angels despite cognitive issues. Some can see or sense what others can’t, and most are considered to have an inroad with God that the rest of the world does not).

Too often, modern books and media fail this litmus test. For instance, I recently read a Christian romance book in which the female protagonist had a sister with cerebral palsy. Mollie, the sister, was blind and could not speak. Fine–some manifestations of CP are severe. However, she was never shown communicating or showing interest in anything, which seems odd in our world of assistive technology. Her one defining trait seemed to be an ability to “heal,” allegedly imbued by God. In other words, just being around this sightless, voiceless woman allegedly made others, including the book’s hero, a Marine with PTSD, feel better and embrace life more.

I had to ask myself, without that healing ability, is Mollie a necessary character? Moreover, why did the author choose to write her this way? I raised those questions in a two-star Amazon review, but they may never be answered.

All I can do is plead once again with the media, especially Christian media, to think about what they’re doing. Stop using Jesus as an excuse to paint PWDs as His poor, pure little lambs. Stop imbuing these characters with psychic ability just so you can tell yourself you’re giving them uniqueness (it’s not unique; it’s all over the place. TV Tropes even calls it the Magical Disabled Person, for crying out loud).

When you expect a person with a disability to be a saint–without the actual Catholic canonization, that is–you’re dumping a lot of pressure on them, as we’ve discussed. You’re also not helping the case for inclusion and normalization. I would instead much rather see characters with disabilities allowed to live rich lives and have real experiences. Are modifications sometimes necessary for that? Yes, and that should be discussed, but not overplayed. And if you’re going to have a character with a superpower, who also happens to have a disability, why not make it unique and fun? Instead of communicating with angels or seeing Jesus in mac and cheese, why not have the character time travel? Use locator spells to find missing persons, a la Once Upon a Time? Use mind control on enemies? Anything but this sugary psychic stuff.

Let’s give PWDs real power today, by showing them that they are valuable in all realms. Then maybe we’ll all feel a little luckier and more light-hearted.


What is a PWD’s Education Really Worth?

Hi readers,

Between lots of work and a bad cold, March has been a tough month for me so far. However, I have collected post ideas, so I am back.

I got the idea for this next post from church. After 15 years of faithful service, my pastor left us two Sundays ago. On March 5, the day before his final Sunday, the church held a going-away party for him and his wife. All the usual people were there, snacks abounded, and there were plenty of well-wishes. I appreciated the chance to mingle with friends that I don’t see often because our church is so big that you often don’t get to chat with the people you see every week at services.

One of the people I mingled with was a friend who sustained physical disabilities because of an accident. He’s in his 40s, but shows signs of premature aging. His speech is very difficult to understand. Yet, he has graduated from seminary and is an intelligent, perceptive person. In other words, he has the education to do what many temporarily able-bodied people do all the time–go out and get jobs wherever they want, of whatever kind they want.

Because of his disabilities, this man, N, does odd jobs at my church.

Now, he likes that. On some level, it’s his choice. But I’m sure you can understand, these jobs are far below what N was actually trained to do.

Many PWDs, especially those who are “high-functioning” (as you know, I tend to think labels like that are crap) are in the same boat. I’m in the same boat on some level because a lack of transportation, and a lack of tolerance for disabilities, keeps me from getting traditional jobs right now. And knowing that makes me wonder: what is the education of a person with a disability really worth in our world today?

I’m not talking about the special ed “curriculums” that consign students with disabilities to overly simplified work in which they have no say. There’s already plenty on the blog about that. Today, I’m talking about education in general. That is, we say we want students with disabilities to be included in general education. We’re doing better at making that possible, too (always room for improvement, but I do like what I’m seeing and hearing in many arenas). We embrace PWDs, especially those who are high-functioning (read: close to “normal”, thus more acceptable) and say we want them to work.

Yet, what really happens when a person with a disability graduates from high school or college? Too often, this is the trajectory:

-Referred to “job services”

-Told by “job services” that “We can’t help you” or “We’ll be in touch”, which = a waiting list or six months waiting by the phone or the email account

-If the person does not use job services, he or she often sends out tons of resumes. If an interview is scheduled, and that’s a big “if,” the person is often questioned at length about modifications, or passed over for another, TAB candidate because it’s easier to hire them, even if the person with a disability is qualified.

-Many PWDs are micromanaged at, or fired from, the jobs they do receive, which are menial.

-If a PWD is fortunate enough to have a skilled, non-menial job, he or she can be discriminated against at any time, based on what he or she legitimately cannot do or needs modifications for. Because a disability does exist, this is not seen as true discrimination; it’s seen as concern for the workplace or even compassion. The person’s claim is thrown out and the process begins again.

I realize this picture is bleak. I also realize that it’s not the case for every PWD. But it happens enough that I’m deeply concerned. I’m also deeply concerned that our current job services focus so much on hiring people with severe disabilities that they don’t give those of us with milder manifestations a chance. I’m glad–thrilled, actually–that we care so much about persons with severe or cognitive/mental disabilities. But a good chunk of our population is being left in the lurch and it doesn’t make sense. I mean, think about it. What would happen if affirmative action quotas looked like this: “Yes, we will hire blacks, but our main concern is hiring those with the darkest skin tone.” People would be shrieking from the housetops!

We are doing better at educating persons with disabilities. However, it is my concern that if we don’t do better at welcoming them into the real world once they are educated, these people will give up on having real, fulfilling lives. When you give up, it becomes much more difficult to live, disability or not. With this in mind, I call employers to really think about what you’re doing.

-Be aware that by law, you cannot refuse to hire a qualified individual because of a disability.

-Familiarize yourself with what “reasonable modifications” are and make the effort to get/use them.

-Judge prospective employees based on merit, not disability (by the way, you legally cannot ask about disabilities, so that also means being respectful when a prospective employee brings it up with you)

-Ask yourself, “In this person’s shoes, what kind of work would I want to do/how would I want to be treated at work?” If you don’t see positive answers in your workplace, it’s time to revamp, in a big way.

Education is one of the most important things you can have, because it figuratively and literally opens doors. Let’s make education worth something for PWDs, and give them the keys to open doors that have, for too long, been slammed in their faces.