Posted by: njs44 | January 23, 2010

Disability or Different Ability?

I have just read an interesting article about Autism in this morning’s Guardian.

It is a story about a father who invents a kind of therapy for his autistic son using horses. He has now set up horse camps where families can go and experience a scaled-down version of a long holiday he took with his son, during which the negative symptoms of his autism improved markedly. Whilst I am sceptical about yet another supposed cure for autism, and agree that far more empirical research needs to be done, there was one part of the article that particularly interested me.

Perhaps his most important ­message, and one certainly ­embraced eagerly by the other ­parents at the camp, is the idea that ­people with autism aren’t just people with problems but ­people with gifts and talents who can ­challenge the “normal” way of doing things in a positive way. “Is autism a tragedy or is it a different skills set?” asks Rupert. “Should we be trying to turn autistic children into ‘normal’ kids, or should we be doing something ­different, which is teaching the ­survival skills to swim in our culture?

“People with autism have ­advantages over the rest of us – they have an ­extraordinary ability to focus, a lack of ego, a drive that’s not distracted by other stuff. Being with Rowan, I sometimes think, who’s the talented person here? When we’re training horses, if Rowan is around they’ll behave ­better and learn more quickly – so who is ­helping who?”

The key message here is that we should stop trying to make autistic people into what we call ‘normal’. Instead we should recognise their intrinsic worth and capabilities, that they have, ‘a different skill set’ and different abilities. I think that this message does not only apply to people with Autism, but to anyone who has different abilities from what society calls ‘normal’. I do not deny the difficulties of coping with disabilties can be enormous, but some of those difficulties are made worse by people striving to get everyone to do the same thing.

This is a message which chimes so well with the work of Jean Vanier who founded the L’Arche communities. In his book, Becoming Human, Vanier explores issues which relate to everyone, able or disabled. He explains how it is important for all of us to accept our weaknesses.

If we deny our weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live 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. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other.

And then he talks about belonging and forgiveness.

It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart. We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us; we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. We learn to accept humbly those who point out our errors and mistakes and who challenge us to grow in truth and love. We support and encourage each other on the journey to inner freedom. We learn how to be close to those who are weaker and more vulnerable, those who may be sick or going through crises or are grieving. As we accept our personal limits and weaknesses, we discover that we need others and we learn to appreciate others and to thank them.


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