Nearly every evening, they are there at their neighborhood pool—a father and his nine-year-old son, Michael. The boy’s smile captures attention instantly. You can’t help but be drawn to watch the two of them as they paddle around, dive for rings, and play “Marco Polo.” Michael stands out from the other children in the pool for one reason: He has Down Syndrome.
We’ve become a culture both welcoming and deadly to people with disabilities. On the one hand, the law requires that they have special access to buildings, and employment opportunities, and children with disabilities are mainstreamed in our schools.
As a country, we’re more sensitive about the words we use (think of the deserved uproar when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called opponents of his health care plan “retarded”.) It’s wonderful to see changes in our laws and attitudes that inspire compassion and respect for people like Michael. While he doesn’t fit the imagined mold of a “perfect” child, he still has rights that are protected by law.
But only if he’s lucky enough to be born.
For preborn children with disabilities, our culture’s desire for perfect children too often proves deadly. Pre-natal testing, now routine, spots markers of future disability or disease. Sometimes that testing saves lives. Most often, however, a pre-natal diagnosis of disability, like Down Syndrome spells death.
Children like Michael tend to suffer a gruesome fate. Nearly nine out of ten mothers who receive the news that they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome choose to abort the pregnancy. They’re afraid of the burdens, real and imagined, that accompany a less than perfect child.
Even our language betrays our conditional acceptance of children. How often do we ask a pregnant woman, “Do you want a boy or a girl,” only to have her reply, “Either one…as long as it’s healthy.” Too often, the caveat is a sign of the mindset that rejects less than perfect children.
How to Save Your Family by Teaching Compassion and Respect for the Disabled
The best way to teach our children respect, love, and compassionate towards the disabled is to make it personal---connect them with someone who needs their friendship or assistance. Encourage them to get involved in programs that let them assist people with disabilities. Young Life’s Capernaum is a beautiful program that ministers to teens and young adults with severe disabilities. My daughter was involved as a Capernaum volunteer throughout her high school years and she naturally bonded with her friends in the program just as much as she did with her healthy friends. In the process, she caused my own understanding of the disabled to deeply mature.
One night, she mentioned that she was going out with several Capernaum friends. “That’s wonderful that you’re going to give up your evening and spend it with them,” I said. She gently responded, “Mom, they’re my friends. I’m going out with my friends.”
Don’t lose sight of the great gift that the disabled can offer: a love for other people. The website of L'Arche, a network of residential communities that brings together those with and without disabilities, captures beautifully what we should all have: “inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.”
We fear what we don’t know. Spending time with the disabled helps to dismantle our personal fears of interacting with them. And when we do, the ugly barriers that divide “us” from “them” come tumbling down. Precisely because children like Michael are not “perfect,” when we will but open our eyes, they can help us experience “what is most important in life: to love and to be loved.”
When more of us see this beauty, perhaps then we can help to destroy the culture of death that surrounds the youngest and most vulnerable among them.