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A theology of disability: Jean Vanier

February 10, 2013

No surprise, but my own views on disability are deeply affected by Jean Vanier, whose ideas are represented here, 

Sharing life with marginalized people galvanized Vanier’s understanding that to serve others well requires us to move beyond charity and tolerance. He recognized the hubris that grows when a helper imagines himself as somehow superior or separate from those he serves. He learned how much better help feels to the person in need when animated by a sense of solidarity and common humanity than help driven merely by a sense of duty. The felt distinction is between merely caring for others, and actually caring about them as people. And since you cannot legislate people to care about others, part of Vanier’s distinct contribution to our understanding of serving others well, is to demonstrate with his communities, that it is possible to create the conditions for this mutuality to develop. “Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy … needs to be celebrated.” He suggests that it is only through this kind of profound acceptance that “our negative, broken self-images can be transformed.” One example is his insistence that simply being with the marginalized in solidarity and celebration, is as vital as doing practical things for them. He entreats people to cultivate “fidelity to the wonder of each day… visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

Vanier insists that while difficult and fraught, care relationships that are not at least on a path towards mutuality will be shallow and inadequate. Amidst the routine physics of care, he reminds us of the fundamental goal of service: “to support and love people to greater freedom.” By this of course he does not mean that one’s need or impairment disappears; but that a person should not be made to feel trapped by their need or interminably beholden to others. He points to the unbearable weight we heap onto people already living with an impairment, when we add the social burden of feeling that they are defined by their need, and have nothing to give to others.

In my own experiences with those with Down Syndrome, autism or other disabilities, i try to practice this mutuality. I play trains on the floor with children because I enjoy it, I play with the dollhouse because I enjoy it, I go for tea with an autistic adult because it means I get to sit in the tea shop, drink tea and listen to classical music with her. I practice enjoying their company and I do. It’s the only way. It is the practice of joy.

Here is a funny story about a little boy, let’s call him Jackie, who came to our grade 3 class recently from a segregated autism program. He is non-verbal, could pick out a few symbols, but his main way of communicating was squawking and slipping his hand under your sweater to pinch a nipple. Well, you get the picture! But he was great at doing jigsaw puzzles and I love puzzles. He also loved the iPad, and I was the keeper of the iPad. Now he is eating out of my hand. What a turnaround!

He spends a lot of time in my room, just next to his classroom. First, he only played on the floor with the toys, then he moved up to a low bench to play on the iPad, then one day he was sitting at the table with the iPad , with his support worker on the computer in the background. I was at the reading table with a grade 1 student, one on one reading. I noticed that Jackie was watching us. When my reading student left, I invited him to join me at the reading table, and he came over. He listened to me read, and put his finger on each word as I read. Then he stopped and looked up, first at my mouth and then directly in my eyes. I was shocked by the look of curiosity and bemusement on his face.

Now, daily, he is acquiring new skills, sorting words into sentences, looking at books, imitating speech sounds, a few here and there, as well as putting together lego kits. He loves that kind of stuff and so do I. You can’t tell me that we are not having a good time just recognizing each other as fellow creatures. I don’t know if he will ever talk, but I am convinced that he will read and write. Reading wasn’t in his original education plan, people would have laughed at that. But the principle I use is to follow the lead of the child. The child will show you what they want to do, what they can do. I know some kids are really difficult to work with, but so far, we always celebrate these children.

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