I am at a strange juncture in which many separate and distinct areas of my life are coming together. They are naturally overlapping and resonating with one unified chord. It is a harmonious and yet, at the same time, dissonant chord that echoes with community, diversity and inclusion and while these thoughts are, by no means cohesive as of yet, I felt that this might be a good space to begin to write them out and let them take shape.
I suppose these thoughts really started to gain momentum on our drive back to Alberta after visiting BC for a month and a half, I stopped at a Chapters because I ran out of books to read and in my world, this is a bit of a crisis. I had heard about Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human but to be honest, right now, I can’t tell you when or where I heard about it. As I started to read, I became captivated by Vanier’s words. So much of what he wrote were thoughts that I had not yet been able to articulate but had pondered abstractly for years.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jean Vanier, he is a Catholic theologian and philosopher who started a community called L’Arche. At its inception, L’Arche was simple – it was a community, founded in France, which brought together people with intellectual disabilities as well as neuro-typical individuals to live together. There are now 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries.
In September, I also began a directed study (which is part of my Master’s Degree) on the rhetoric of dis/abilities in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has involved reading the works of Shakespeare, John Milton, Margaret Cavendish, John Locke and others in light of dis/ability studies. This, in and of itself has been intriguing, but further to this I had a conversation with my new supervisor. You see, when I started my Master’s degree a number of years ago, I had a different supervisor (this is what happens when it takes you too long to finish a degree) and at one point in the conversation, I asked, “Now correct me if I’m wrong but don’t you have a child with a disability?”
“Well, I don’t like to use that language, but I do have a son with Down syndrome.” Boom! I was totally called out. I am never comfortable with that language either and yet, it is the common currency – the language that everyone understands, so I use it. As I have been studying the rhetoric behind dis/abilities however, it has become glaringly obvious that just because a certain word was used to describe an individual who did not fit “norm” at one point in history, it doesn’t mean it can’t change. In fact, did you know that “normal” was not even a thing until about 1840.
Let’s put this into perspective – my Chinese ancestors were already in Canada. So really, not that long ago. In his book, Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard Davis describes how normal was not related to the “ideal”, as we often assume. The ideal rather, was reserved for the gods as portrayed in a Venus statue, for example. In this case, all members of the population are below the ideal. No, “normal” was only birthed out of Statistics. The people that defined “normal” were all connected with industry. Who was the ideal worker? It was based on averages and thus, followed social implications. There was then concern for national fit-ness and intellect. If the citizens are not fit or have undesirable traits they will bring down the nation’s fit-ness – hence, eugenics, (a topic I will reserve for another time). The point is, from this new understanding of “normal” came new words to describe deviance and thus, we had the invention of “disability”. Note: disability is a social construct not a biological attribute. That being said, with the 18th century we also had scientific discovery and the naming and categorizing of different impairments and with that the thought that perhaps, humanity could be perfected. This language in and of itself, implies disability is in contrast to perfection BUT if you really consider eliminating diversity, all you would be left with is “sameness”.
It is my desire, however that society begins to better understand that sameness would only deplete morale, ethics and would lead to the deterioration of society. Look at books like The Giver or movies like Gattaca. We know this people! If you eliminate all the Jews, or all the Muslims or religious expression altogether, your world is not going to be better. If you eliminate all the deaf people, or all the lame people, your world is not going to be better! And yet, our language denotes connotations that historical difference is something to be feared and eliminated. Words like “disability” or “special needs” – these words do not foster a sense of inclusion, and yet, this is the language of our governments, our educational policies and even our advocacy organizations.
Whenever, I delve into academia, I try to keep one foot on dry ground at all times and ask myself, “what practical implications does this have.” I don’t want to study just for the sake of theory. There needs to be a practical outcome and this is one of them. Our language needs to change. Until our language changes, attitudes will not change.
So what type of language should we use? The answer is language that promotes the truth that each person is an integral part of our community. In our quest to perfect humanity, we have pushed a lot of people to the margins. Over the course of history this has included, but is not limited to, people of different religious affiliations, people from different cultures and people with historical difference (my more appropriate phrase in an attempt to replace “disability” at the moment). This has also included however, the young and the old. Society views weakness as an undesirable trait and both the young and old experience this weakness. As Jean Vanier writes however, “To deny weakness as a part of life is to deny death…If we deny weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live in an illusion. To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are.” (Pg. 40)
To deny weakness as a part of life is to deny death
Recently, here in Canada, there has been a huge emphasis on the treatment of indigenous peoples. In terms of rhetoric, the label we have placed on these people has change four times in my lifetime (Indian to First Nations to Aboriginals to Indigenous). Canada’s indigenous people were pushed to the margins. They were mistreated, forced to live in residential schools and abused. As I am listening to this conversation however, it is sounding all too similar to the history of people of historical difference. Mistreated. Forced to live in institutions. Abused. In fact, this treatment still exists in many parts of the world. As we work towards reconciliation however, for indigenous people (I still trip on this rhetoric, unsure as to what is politically correct), we look to all that they have done for our nation, we acknowledge their contributions and seek to improve the lives of those who continue to live in the margins – on reserves without clean water, without schools or proper infrastructure.
We need to do the same for people of historical difference. We have pushed these people to the margins and yet, we need to instead, recognize their contributions and seek reconciliation. Vanier challenges us to recognize our common humanity and embrace a love that transforms loneliness into belonging. Belonging, is such an important concept in and of itself that it also deserves and entirely separate post, especially as it relates to individuals with exceptional social needs (note: exceptional, not special and not disability). Of belonging, Vanier says, “Belonging, then, is a school of love where we learn to open up to others and to the world around us, where each person, creature, and thing in our world is important and is respected.” (Pg. 41) These words were especially poignant as I considered inclusion and Ella’s school situation. He goes on to say, “Belonging…is the place where we can find a certain emotional security. It is the place where we learn a lot about ourselves, our fears, our blockages, and our violence, as well as our capacity to give life; it is the place where we grow to appreciate others, to live with them, to share and work together, discovering each one’s gifts and weaknesses.” Gifts and needs.
We are all part of a community: be it school, church, a club, our neighborhood or our workplace. Our diversity, meaning our strengths and our weaknesses, brings beauty to those communities. It eliminates sameness and suppresses animosity and while acknowledging individuality forces us to embrace our interconnectedness. As we strive to reclaim community (the community we have lost and has been replaced by isolation and loneliness) I encourage you to consider: what is one gift you bring to your community and what is one need? Because I believe that if we can first see ourselves as imperfect humans with needs it will be easier to accept those around us as part of our collective humanity and perhaps, just maybe, if we work together, and be generous with our gifts, no one will be in need.
Belonging, then, is a school of love where we learn to open up to others and to the world around us, where each person, creature, and thing in our world is important and is respected.