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International Day of People with Disability

The International Day of People with Disability invites us to remember people who experience from different kinds of disability and to enter their lives compassionately, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.

When we see the extraordinary agility and skills of tennis players and other athletes with a disability, the poetry written by people who experience mental illness, or read of the achievements of President Roosevelt after he contracted polio, we recognise the challenges that disabilities bring with them. We are inspired by the resilience of people who do not allow disability to limit their personal growth or the contribution that they make to society.

On this day we honour people with disability. We ask, too, how we can shape the world in a way that removes all the barriers that reinforce disability. We might press, for example, to make public buildings, churches and schools easily accessible by wheelchairs so that people who have difficulty in walking can enter them as freely as everyone else. If we need special help to access offices or classrooms, other people can easily be led to think of us as different and so as less fully human. The same desire to make our world open to everyone might lead us to put sound loops in halls, subtitles and plot descriptions on television shows, and to provide an equal opportunity for education of children with autism as their peers. While meeting the specific needs of each person, we should try to open experiences to all people alike.

People with disability, like other people who stand out as different from the majority by reason of their appearance, their race, their religion and their limitations, often experience discrimination and find that many people are uneasy in their presence. Children might mock them and adults be embarrassed in their company. People who are sight impaired might find that other people speak to them loudly and slowly as if they are deaf or slow of understanding. Such behaviour is hurtful. Very often, however, it does not reflect ill will, but simply social unease and ignorance about how best to communicate or be of assistance. The best way to respond is often to be direct: to introduce ourselves, ask whether we can be helpful, and if so, how.

Put simply, people who suffer from disability are persons like ourselves, precious, demanding of respect and shared members of the human family. They are a gift in themselves. We find that to be true at Jesuit Social Services where we work with young people who experience social disadvantage and many of whom suffer from mental illness. Their disability can be a gift to us by unlocking our compassion and building friendship.