Dignity of the Disabled
Two of the most stirring images of the papacy of Pope Francis center on a person with a disability. In the first, featured on the cover of America (4/29/13), the pope embraces young Dominic Gondreau, a boy with cerebral palsy. In the second Pope Francis is shown kissing a man disfigured by severe tumors. Pope Francis’ outreach to these two individuals impressed observers as both heartwarming and just. With simple gestures of compassion, he extended to them the love they deserve as human beings made in God’s image and likeness.
As is often true with Pope Francis, his actions demand a response from us. How do we minister to people with disabilities in our own lives, whether the person is a wheelchair-bound relative or a homeless veteran with a missing limb? On a societal level, how do we treat people with disabilities? Do we provide them with the tools and services they need to live a healthy and productive life? Or are they left, as they have been for so much of human history, on the margins of society, isolated at home or forced to beg for money on the street? These questions are especially important for Catholics in the United States as we recommit ourselves to the defense of life this month at the annual March for Life. They are also pressing questions for leaders in Washington, who have thus far failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.
The U.N. convention is an international treaty that seeks to ensure a basic level of human rights for disabled persons throughout the world. It is part of a welcome campaign to shine a light on the plight of the disabled in countries that fail to provide them with the infrastructure and social services they need to thrive. When the United Nations set out to address global poverty through the Millennium Development Goals, persons with disabilities were not mentioned. The United Nations is now seeking to address that gap by including disability rights in all its discussions on poverty.
People with disabilities constitute a disproportionately large number of the world’s poor. The United Nations estimates that two billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of physical or mental disability. In developing countries, 90 percent of disabled children do not attend school, and as many as one of every three street children is disabled. Persons with disabilities also face high levels of unemployment. Simple innovations we have come to take for granted in the United States, like elevators, ramps and designated parking spaces, can radically improve the prospects of the disabled in the developing world.
Here is where the moral leadership of the United States can do much good. Like Britain and other countries in the West, the United States has codified protections for people with disabilities. But the campaign for the basic human rights of the disabled did not end with the adoption of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. By declining to ratify the U.N. convention, Congress has declined to support the extension of disability rights to individuals worldwide. Legislators should rectify that wrong by bringing up the matter again for a vote.
The challenges facing the disabled merit special attention during the March for Life. In some industrialized countries, including the United States, prenatal screening leads to the abortion of an estimated 60 percent to 90 percent of children with Down syndrome or other genetic anomalies. Sadly, this aspect of disability rights is not mentioned in the U.N. literature. The rights of the disabled must be defended from the very first moment of existence. A natural extension of pro-life advocacy would include the promotion of services for individuals with disabilities and their families.
Church communities should also undergo a process of self-examination. Too many Catholic schools and churches do not have adequate resources for people with disabilities. Elevators, song books in Braille, better sound systems for the hearing impaired, sign language interpreters—developments like these would send a strong signal that all are welcome in our church communities. These are not inexpensive measures, to be sure, but a commitment to the flourishing of every individual will require some financial sacrifice. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability is an excellent resource for groups looking to offer these services in a sustainable way.
By reaching out to people with disabilities, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Jesus, who was a special friend to the blind, the lame and the deaf. The disabled, like the poor, have always been with us. The disability rights movement of the last 50 years has been a journey of liberation, one that began in the West but must continue in the developing world. For millennia individuals with disabilities lived in the shadows. As Pope Francis reminds us, it is our responsibility to welcome them into the light.