The theme of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities puts disabilities into a broader context of how society affects them and must change to meet them. Pope Francis has always commended the day, focusing on people’s personal needs. Both approaches are necessary.
Some disabilities affect individual persons but are made doubly disabling by society. A person who has lost the use of their legs in an accident, for example, should be able to have the same educational opportunities as someone who can walk. But if their school provides only stairs and not ramps or lifts, they will not be able to attend class and so will be doubly disadvantaged. Similarly, a young person with an acquired brain injury that affects their mobility and communication but not their intelligence will be doubly disadvantaged if placed in a home for people with dementia. Society can either help overcome the effects of disadvantage or intensify them.
In neither of these cases were the school architects nor health officials necessarily cruel. They probably just did not notice. For that reason, it is vital that people living with disabilities should be the centre of attention in society, and not placed at its edges to be thought of when everything else was decided. If they are at the centre, schools and hospitals will be built in a way that caters for their needs, facilities provided for their special needs, and supportive communities shaped around them.
These examples are all of physical disabilities. Even more challenging, however, are those affecting the young people whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services. They include mental and physical illnesses, the effects of domestic violence, of education, and homelessness. It is not enough for us to provide facilities for them. We must also enable people to reach their full potential as human beings by taking possession of their lives and contributing actively to society.
Underlying the theme of the World Day for persons with disability is the need in all societies to see people with disability as persons like us, with the same desires and feelings. When confronted with people who are different, we can easily feel uneasy and afraid of them. That leads us to stay away from them, and to join others in mocking them. We then become less humane, they become less able to trust, and we all cease to grow. At the heart of our mission at Jesuit Social Services is that they invite us to love them, like ourselves.