Preconceived notions

By Father Dennis Meinen
View from the Scooter

The Census Bureau reports one in five Americans, some 54 million of us, have some type of disability. This includes people who are blind or deaf, or use wheelchairs, as well as those with chronic disease or mental disabilities.

When we go to the polls as an entire country, one in ten voters is disabled. Many of those disabled voters were not able to vote, because the polls are inaccessible. Only the tiny state of Rhode Island pledged “full accessibility at all 433 of its polling places . . . and will be the first state to enable all blind voters to vote without assistance from another person.” Good for Rhode Island.

Have you heard the story of the soldier who was finally coming home after having fought in Vietnam? He called his parents from San Francisco.

“Mom and Dad, I’m coming home, but I’ve got a favor to ask. I have a friend I’d like to bring with me.”

“Sure,” they replied, “we’d love to meet him.”

“There’s something you should know,” the son continued. “He was hurt pretty badly in the fighting. He stepped on a land mine and lost an arm and a leg. He has nowhere else to go, and I want him to come live with us.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, son. Maybe we can help him find somewhere to live.”

“No, Mom and Dad, I want him to live with us.”

“Son,” said the father, “you don’t know what you’re asking. Someone with such a handicap would be a terrible burden on us. We have our own lives to live, and we can’t let something like this interfere with our lives. I think you should just come home and forget about this guy. He’ll find a way to live on his own.”

At that point, the son hung up the phone. The parents heard nothing more from him. A few days later, however, they received a call from the San Francisco police. Their son had died after falling from a building. The police believed it was suicide.

The grief-stricken parents flew to San Francisco and were taken to the city morgue to identify the body of their son. They recognized him, but to their horror they also discovered something they didn’t know. Their son had only one arm and one leg.

The parents in this story are like many of us. We find it easy to love those who are good-looking or fun to have around, but we don’t like people who inconvenience us or make us feel uncomfortable. We would rather stay away from people who aren’t as healthy, beautiful or smart as we are.

One of the most consistent and powerful messages of Christianity has been that we become god-like when we take on the suffering of another. That is the image of the Christ who suffers with us. This acceptance, this willingness to suffer with involves a letting go, a surrendering of control and a radical opening of ourselves to things as they come to us.

When we interact with a disabled person, can we simply let go of our preconceived notions of what they are or what they are feeling and simply be with them, accept them? What would disabled people like from us?

Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese and Calix and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.

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