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Ability, Disability and Humanity

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

I sit on a committee that explores issues of inclusion. We seek to understand how individuals are included or excluded in our society and how to increase the former and decrease the later. We seek to make resources more accessible to all people, regardless of their varied presentations or skill sets. Of course, not all things will be a good fit for all people, but the goal is to be mindful and to consider whom we exclude and whom we include based on decisions that we may or may not even realize we are making.

As a part of our learning and thinking, we recently had Dr. Dan Gottlieb join us for a lecture exploring ability and disability. Dr. Gottlieb is a psychologist with a local practice, he is also the radio talk show host for NPR’s “Voices in the Family” and he is the author of numerous books with a new book out this spring - The Wisdom We are Born With: Restoring our Faith in Ourselves.

It is useful to know that Dr. Gottlieb was in a terrible car accident in 1979 that paralyzed him from the chest down. He uses a wheelchair for mobility and has many specially adapted tools as well as many caregivers to assist him in performing basic tasks of everyday living. This gives him powerful insight into what it means to be seen as different and what it means to bump into areas of exclusion. It also gives him a complex and rich understanding of many of the challenges and rewards embedded in the ongoing task of overcoming adversity.

On the February morning of our lecture, Dr. Gottlieb spoke about what it is to be human, and as such to be flawed. Who among us does not have needs, wounds, deficits, self-doubt, existential angst? While sometimes we can see our differences as distancing, the reality is that they binds us and connect us to one another. This intimate understanding of what it is to be “other,” to suffer, enables us to understand, honor and bear witness to the suffering that others must endure.

Sadly, our role cannot always be, or even often be, to eliminate the pain that another is feeling. It may be that what we can do, and must do, is to sit with this pain and not run away from it or minimize it. By making a place for sorrow, for mourning what cannot be, we are able to also make a place for what is possible - by knowing limits we come to understand potential. I find that we often underestimate the incredible healing power of seeing, hearing and accepting others, and of allowing ourselves to be seen, heard and accepted. This task does not seem to be action oriented, and yet, it is tremendously active and deeply meaningful. This action is accomplished by remaining still and present.

Dr. Gottlieb invited us to begin the work of loving and honoring others with the fundamental and critical task of loving and honoring ourselves. Our ability to be honest with ourselves, to care for and nurture ourselves, to act with loving kindness in our thoughts and actions, can then be extended to those we care about and care for. Nurturing the self is the first step towards being in connection and community with others. The reality is that we simply cannot give others something that we do not have.

As an example, he cautioned against caregivers imagining that their needs are less important than the needs of those for whom they care. How could such a thought be true? Which of the two people is more important, more valuable? It is always a balancing act between the needs of both that allows for the health and well-being of each. Of course, in any given moment the scale may not be balanced. There are times when we must give more, we must hold and bend, but there must also be times in turn, where we are held and appreciated and honored. If this holding cannot be performed by the person for whom we are caring, due to an impairment of his ability to provide this function, then it must come from elsewhere. It’s like the directions on an airplane – the caregiver must put on the oxygen mask first because he will be unable to care for anyone without having his own basic needs met.

Dr. Gottlieb challenged the ideology and the language around ability, disability, disabled, differently abled, having special needs (who doesn’t?). The truth is that we all have areas in which we excel and areas in which we struggle. Some challenges may be more obvious or more severe than others but none of us is perfectly adjusted and capable in all areas. Our difficulties with the language of disability reflect our underlying difficulties with owning these challenges and deficits.

When we can admit our own challenges with honesty and kindness, negotiating through potential shame or denial, we can act with love and compassion for the self. This honesty allows for personal growth and exploration, for mistakes and learning, for movement and discovery. When we can do this internally, we make space for others to do so as well and all are enriched through this shared experience.

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