This week, Paul and I got to go and speak at a fundraising event in Niagara, Ontario for an organization that supports and cares for families with children who have disabilities. It was such an honour to be invited to this event, and to hear families and individuals share their experiences and dreams with us. I watched a young man with pretty severe limitations stand on a stage, tears running down his face he was so afraid, and sing “Sweet Caroline.” He broke my heart with his courage. I listened to a young woman share about the community she has found who has gathered around her to support her as she cares for disabled twin boys after her husband tragically died of cancer last year. She was vulnerable and broken and beautiful.
You know, people with learning and other disabilities haven’t always been treated well. In fact, from as far back as our history books can tell us, “not well” would be an understatement. I remember my mom telling me that, even when she was a kid, it was a shameful thing for someone to be born with any form of disability. More times than not, even in the 1950’s and 60’s, they would be institutionalized and forced to live in inhumane conditions.
Until the late 1700’s, in most parts of the world, persons with disabilities were considered demonized, and a countless many were killed. The world slowly started to change with enlightened thinking and the introduction of “moral treatment” but it wasn’t until only fifty or so years ago that western culture really started to change our viewpoint on how to best care for the mentally and physically disabled.
Most of us are well aware of the atrocities that occurred during World War I, particularly at the hands of the Nazi regime. What some may not realize is that one of the earliest populations the Nazi’s set out to destroy was people with disabilities. An estimated 100,000 children and adults were exterminated.
But we are generally afraid of what we don’t understand, aren’t we? At best, we will ignore it, and at worst, we will try to eliminate it.
Sometimes, it makes me despise the very nature of humanity. I look at so many species in the animal kingdom and see this sense of community—this sense of tribalism—and I wonder, what is wrong with us?
When I look around at this culture we live in—and don’t get me wrong, I love Canada. I love so much about where we live—but when I regard this culture that teaches us to capitalize on every and any opportunity that presents itself, with disregard to those who will pay the price for our success . . . when I see us teaching our children this idea of independence, competition, and self-reliance, I can’t help but think we have gone wrong somewhere. Despite our determination to foster independence and competitiveness, it has been proven many times over that some of the strongest and most satisfied people in the world are those who live tribally.
Paul and I took the girls to see this wonderful documentary some time ago, called Born to be Wild. It was an extraordinary film. We got to watch as these orphaned chimpanzees and elephants were rescued and cared for in remote areas of the jungle. When they were old enough to be set free, you couldn’t help but worry that they wouldn’t make it on their own. But when they brought three young orphaned elephants to the halfway place to prepare them for reentry into the wild, the most extraordinary thing happened. From miles and miles away, this huge group of adult elephants came looking for the orphans. They somehow just knew that some of their own were in need of protection and care. The narrator in the film says this line that stuck in my heart. He said it was as though the older elephants, as they wrapped their trunks around the young ones and drew them in close, were saying, “You’re part of our family. You are one of us. And we love you.”
Such simple words and yet probably the most profoundly impacting any of us will ever hear.
I can’t think how many people throughout history never got to hear those words until after they had passed from this world and on into heaven. It’s a tragedy almost too great to bear.
But here we are in the year 2015 and things have changed, haven’t they? A generation of people have emerged across the earth who have a new way of looking at things. There are leaders among us who take initiative to develop programs and build buildings to support families and recognize differences and celebrate those differences.
This makes me realize that, although our humanness has caused us to do unthinkable things to one another, it also gives us the ability to be intentional—and to be history makers.
My youngest brother, Jacob, was born with physical and mental disabilities. He is part of a family who has embraced him, and he has parents who have made sacrifices and have fought HARD for him to have a good life. Jake is strong, kind, and eternal.
For the first time since the beginning, many, many people are being seen and respected as strong, kind, and eternal who never would have before. Each of us needs to know, without doubt, that we are not alone, that we are part of a tribe.
I’d want to know that, if I was left alone—if I had been stranded in a place where I didn’t fit in and couldn’t survive without help—that others would come from close and from miles away to pull me in to their centre. To shout over me a message that every single precious boy and girl, woman and man needs desperately to hear:
You are a part of our family
Your are one of us
And we love you.