Disabled people are an integral part of our society. We see them at the mall, in the street, at church, and aboard public transport In fact, pretty much anywhere we go. The problem is that many of us don't know how to relate to them. The result is we look the other way and keep on walking. I'm hoping the thoughts I share through this column will help bring about a deeper understanding of how to feel comfortable around the disabled. You might ask what my qualifications are. The answer is years of experience of growing up with a disabled sister.
Leanne was born in 1967 with Rubenstein Taybi Syndrome. This genetic condition is accompanied by myriad physical and mental disabilities and Leanne has an extensive medical history. Over the years she has endured dozens of surgeries on her right knee, both thumbs, bowel, teeth, eyes, and more recently, the removal of a melanoma and skin grafts to repair the surgical site. She has limited mental capabilities and is very unsteady on her feet, preferring to have someone to lean on as she walks. In her younger years she was in a wheelchair between surgeries and also had a colostomy for months, following an extended period in ICU.
Leanne's education was spread across several schools and institutions and, in spite of doctors declaring her ineducable, my mother persisted and succeeded in helping her to learn. Although her grasp of number concepts is weak, Leanne learned to read and her favorite book is the dictionary. If she hears a word she doesn't understand, she will look it up and read the meaning aloud.
My parents have always sought the best for Leanne and she still lives with them today even though they are now in their seventies. In years to come, I will be appointed her legal guardian and that in itself poses a problem; she lives in South Africa and I in New Zealand. Government policy bars people with certain conditions from entering this country and I will have to apply for special permission to bring her in when the time comes.
Leanne has complicated my life and continues to do so, but she has also enriched it and taught me many valuable things. Through her, I have been exposed to many people with disabilities and have learned deep lessons through interacting with them and sometimes, by just observing. I think their greatest desire, just like anyone else, is for acceptance...and this is the one thing they are so often denied.
I recently heard an interview on our local Christian radio station about a boy with mental disabilities who was unable to speak. The father said that God had assured him that although the boy had no voice, his life would speak to many. I believe the same applies to Leanne. Although gregarious, she has little social contact apart from friends at the local sheltered workshop. Her speech is unclear and her mobility limited, yet through me, her voice is being heard. The voice that calls for love, understanding, and acceptance. The voice that says I have hopes and dreams and desires. The voice that says don't overlook me or ignore me; I'm human too.
Come with me on this journey as we explore why we tend to feel uncomfortable around the disabled and learn what we can do to integrate them into our lives. Once we have dealt with the fears and uncertainties, our lives and theirs will be enhanced by this new understanding.