I wanted to begin by saying what the word ‘handicap’ means. Initially, we can think of motor handicaps (like an amputation), or sensual handicaps (like blindness), or mental handicaps (like not being able to speak the local language), or psychic handicaps (like a continuing paranoia). I began to realise that most people don’t like the word ‘handicap’, and don’t like using it. It seems too tragic, too like a bit of death come too soon. So a lot of people prefer to talk about a handicapped person being just different, fragile, vulnerable…but not handicapped. [We are all different, all fragile, but we do not usually say that we are all handicapped.]
Such a one is sometimes called disabled – but I hardly ever hear anyone called abled. Perhaps ‘differently abled’ might be better. Occasionally I hear the word invalid – and I am no sure where the accent lies – INvalid or inVALID. But we don’t talk about valid people much, do we? We don’t like calling handicapped people abnormal, but we hardly ever say anyone of them is normal, do we? [What’s in a norm, anyway?]
There are the carers, too. They often – especially mothers – put on a brave face as if nothing is wrong or unusual. Sometimes they feel a sense of shame – they are strangely and wrongly guilty about the handicap that is there. It is part of the guilt people feel when they themselves aren’t perfect – I’m omnipotent, aren’t I, so why am I - or my dear ones - not perfect??? Sometimes carers erect a hostile mental world to live in, and fight the ‘system’ that doesn’t want handicapped people around. You can almost feel as if you are one body with the handicapped one…in a little world of your own that you would give your life to protect. [Why do you feel awkward when you meet a disabled artist, or can’t find words when you meet a paralympian?]
There is an isolation in a handicap. It comes from being excluded. You are out of the going run of things. Without your pusher or your wheelchair or your carer, you are alone, out of it. You’re a deficit. Your handicap is the little bit of the iceberg you and others can see. But you live, and they don’t, with the whole iceberg. It’s cold and lonely there. It makes you wonder about being dead. [Secularisation has no language about death, and no good language about handicap either.]
I ponder, sometimes, where our thoughts and words come from. We assume, can I say, that there’s a form-type, an archetype if you like, for being human. Of course, in individuals, there’s more or less of it, but always within an acceptable range. When you get to the bottom end of that range, to what we might term a default point, you are off the map and sorry, but you’re, well, not human at all. The old Greek philosophers called that point steresis. It is really the origin of any concept of poverty we have. Poverty is not-having. It’s not being com-plete. [Is that why we compete so much?]
So what is wisdom about relating to handicapped people? I could sum it up simply.
Don’t exclude them, don’t discriminate against them, don’t try to normalise them, don’t try to integrate them….don’t try to make them as like other non-handicapped people as possible….at least not without relating to them in their singular and special personhood. Integrating people without interacting with them never healed or helped anyone. Ask a schizophrenic. If you do relate, you might just, for a moment anyway, dis-isolate them. Or dis-isolate yourself. Or both. Over and over, for lots of moments.
The ‘trouble’ if we can call it that, is that our whole set of assumptions about the social contract, about community, about communion itself, is built on the hope that nobody has ‘trouble’ and we are all ‘nice’ people.What if we had another set of assumptions based on the singularity of each and everyone, without exclusion?
All this has been a long lead-up to some thoughts about sin, or better, about sinners, or better still, about people who used-to-be-sinners but aren’t any more and still think they are. [They are the ones most likely to come to a Reconciliation Ritual.] I am not sure that real, full bloodied sin occurs as often as some books (and some preachers) used to tell us. But there are still lots of good people who think it did occur in their lives. They think, as a result, that they are sinners, still sinners now. I mean people who come to church – regularly, occasionally, sometimes, or even after a pretty long interlude. I also include some who don’t show up at all. But they are good, good people now. Whatever happened in the past has been regretted, repented, absolved (too many times) years ago, but they still feel they ‘are’ sinners. No good my telling them they aren’t. They feel like they are.
I think that is a handicap. A big one. One that hurts and isolates. Not a sin, but a handicap. Don’t say, ‘just’ a handicap.
My suggestion, don’t try to normalise these people, don’t try to integrate them…into the church of the alleged holy-holy innocents, without relating to their pain, without interacting with them in their stories…. Each one is a unique, unrepeatable instance of God’s love. Each one’s painful story is the story of God’s love.
And if you do relate to them, if they do tell their story, the main thing that might change is the church. It might be a church that receives them as they are and as they think they are, with open arms for each one….and assures them that handicaps are not a problem. After all, crucifixion was a handicap, and its stigmata are still there in the body of the crucified-risen one.