Can you be disabled and be a man?
It’s the kind of question that probably brings out an immediate “yes” from you, dear reader. Perhaps even a “why are you even asking that question?” Perhaps you’re reading to see if I’m about to be incredibly crass, even offensive. Perhaps you’re about to turn the page (no, wait, come back, it’ll get good in a sec). While the immediate answer to the question might be straightforward, sadly, as we’ll see here, some of us actually live, and think, like the answer is a lot more complicated.
17% of the population of the UK, according to the 2011 census, had a disability (as disability is defined by the government). 16% of the population of the UK, according to the same census, were under the age of 15. Stop and think about that for a moment. There are more people in this country who are disabled than there are children. Judging by the amount of children there seem to be in the country that means there must be a lot of disabled people around somewhere.
According to a recent survey from SCOPE, 43% of people said they didn’t know any disabled people (seriously, how is that possible?), whilst two-thirds of those surveyed said that they felt uncomfortable talking to a disabled person. As a disabled person myself, I can vouch for at least one of us (me) being a little odd, but seriously, what is that about?
As a Church of England minister (with attendant white plastic dog collar), a wheelchair user, a man with an increasingly impressive (and manly, so my wife says) beard and a penchant for wearing purple trousers, I have a fair number of experiences of people staring at me in the street. I, of course, prefer to think that they stare at my because of my film star good looks and suave, debonair charm, but I fear it might be something else. Thinking about it, perhaps it’s no wonder that 66% of people might be uncomfortable talking to me. I remember one particular occasion when a young gentleman stared at me again and again as he walked away from me up the high street, incredulous at the wonder of my beard (I assume) until he walked in to a lamppost. I may have chortled. I remember another in WHSmith (that bastion of propriety) where I was calmly going about my business and a guy came up to me and said, apropos of nothing “I f*****g hate disabled people” before getting in the lift and disappearing. I was a bit baffled by that one, but at least he made his point succinctly, and he thought I was a person.
As entertaining as these experiences, and others like them can be, though, I have a growing sense that fear, and a sense that I am somehow “less-than” as a disabled person, are coming, or returning, into play in our society. In most times in history, the clearest way of seeing how a society is doing is to look at how much compassion it shows, in general and to those considered to be its weakest members in particular. I don’t personally think, necessarily that impairment = weakness. Far from it. It’s pretty clear to me that in the way God created the world, at the very least the possibility of impairment was present. Nowhere are we told that people’s bodies and minds would not be different from one another. Nowhere are we told that we would all go through life like some cross between Jesus, Arnold Schwarzanegger and George Clooney, the perfect specimens of humanity in every conceivable way. Christians have no problem, it seems to me, holding up Jesus as the ultimate example of what it is to be a man, but he was nothing special to look at (the Bible, Jesus’s best PR, tells us so itself), was quite prone to losing his temper, said the wrong thing all the time, and most of all, achieved his greatest success and victory by becoming impaired to the fullest extent possible, before defeating death in the resurrection, but maintaining his scars. Jesus’s “blemishes” were part of who he was as he showed that he was who He Was.
So, we have a problem. As a bloke, I feel like I’m constantly being told that I have to prove that I’m worth it. Whether that’s through “contributing to society”, through how much money I earn and how nice my house is, whether I’m a net drain on the state because I take too much money in benefits as opposed to the amount of tax I pay, whether it’s the money paid on drugs and medical treatment to keep me going from one day to the next could perhaps be better spent on someone closer to the Clooney Utopian Model of Man, my sense of self is constantly under pressure. You might think I’m being silly, or facetious, but look at the questions asked about benefits and welfare in Britain (and other parts of the world at the moment). They all, in the end, come down to what we think a human life is worth. There’s a danger that we’re moving the goalposts, so that less people who are actually men, can be considered such. As soon as we stop viewing each other as equals, beloved of a Creator (a foundational aspect of creation) and view each other in terms of a hierarchy, we are in trouble. And the thing is, as a man, I feel that’s one of the things I’m constantly challenged to do. I’m to measure myself, and my success, against others. It’s competition that I’m engaged in, survival of the fittest. If I’m not seeking more money, promotion, more security, more happiness, more recognition, then somehow I’m not doing life properly. I’m letting myself down, and I should get out of the way and let someone who really has the hang of this capitalism thing achieve all the success they deserve, because they work bloody hard.
We have a tendency, I believe, to socially disable others in our society. Social disablement is the constructing of society in such a way that others are excluded and unable to take part. This happens all over the place. Whether it be trying to get into buildings, onto the Tube without feeling like death from having my face in someone’s BO-filled armpit is just around the corner (alright, this happens to everyone), finding it harder to get work (it is demonstrably harder to gain employment as a disabled person), build relationships, form community, or whatever it is, we live in a society where we like to keep each other in our places, where the only way that we can be “socially mobile” is if we deserve it. Do you deserve to be upwardly mobile? Do I? Who gets to decide that?
This is all fine until things stop working. We slow down. Bits start to sag, fall off, fall out, or stop to stand to attention. What makes a real man then? Does what a man is change when you get older, when you gain more experience, when you become senile, when you’re round the corner from death? In our culture it’s easy to think it does. It’s easy for us who might be in the prime of life to value ourselves more highly than those whose function, or intelligence, or productivity is lower than ours, but what happens when we become one of those people who functions less well, is less productive, needs to be looked after more than we can look after others? By some people’s logic there’d come a time when none of us are valid humans any more and we should all be gently assisted off this mortal coil. It is actually a fear of mine, hidden away deep down somewhere, that this might happen to me someday.
If what a man is, is down to how much power or authority we have, how much autonomy we exercise over our lives, then all is lost. Jesus lost everything to save everyone. We have to learn how to have less, to be less powerful, how to need to be less in control, so that we can understand that impairment, loss and decay are important parts of life. 95% of us will spend some time in a wheelchair at some point in our lives. It’s alright, it’s quite good fun. Have you seen some of those Wheelchair Rugby players? And anyway, if you could sit down all day, why would you walk around? I’ve never understood that.
To me, what it is to be a man is to be who you are, when people are watching and when they’re not. It’s not about how strong or weak you are. It’s not about what you do on your best day, or even on your worst. It’s about the spark of the divine that is within each one of us, recognizing and responding to it as far as we are able, and learning contentment. Ideally we’d learn to live together, like and love ourselves, love others and, at a push, love God too. If we’re going to do that, then elevating ourselves over and above other people has no place in our lives, our communities or our societies. And even if we were going to view ourselves, or someone else, as better or worse, it certainly cannot be on the basis of physical, mental or emotional ability or lack of ability. To view ourselves and others like that is to step on to a slippery slope which allows us to dismiss or eradicate those we don’t deem necessary, as I said. This is a chilling thought.
I have a hope that things can be better than this. I have a hope that we will learn to accept ourselves and others and stop fearing each other so much that we think it’s ok to practice injustice on one another as we disable one another. After all, we actually all need each other. Impairment and disability might well be coming to all of us at some stage. Ultimately, though, my hope rests in the idea that the God who impaired Himself to the largest extent possible for us all, also achieved ultimate victory, so that our broken senses of self and perspectives on life, love, hope and freedom could be fixed and renewed. There will come a time when we will no longer disable each other, whether we are impaired or not. Maybe I’ll be able to walk in heaven. Maybe I’ll have a gold-plated wheelchair. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the slightest. What does matter is that I’ll be who I was always meant to be, in the place I was always destined to be. So will all of us.
So can you be a man and be disabled? Of course you can. Should men be disabled? No they should not. We should not live and behave in ways which disable each other. Do we really believe that every living person is of equal value? Are we going to live like that is true? If we do and we are, then we can make it one of our goals to accept that sometimes we will be weaker than we want to be. Sometimes we will have impairments that we don’t want to have, but we can also make a promise to ourselves and others to not devalue or disable someone on the basis of what they can or can’t do. Jesus doesn’t do it. Neither should we. Jesus lived a life of radical love, generosity and self-sacrifice. Let’s do the same and follow his example.
Thanks to Mat Ray at Livability for the statistics