Whether in the form of mockery or general marginalization, for centuries people have regularly looked down on and separated themselves from those who have physical or mental challenges, putting these people in an “other” category. Seeing these people this way makes them out to be less human than individuals who do not share their challenges.
In recent years, this problem has escalated in certain cultures where fetuses that are tested positively for down syndrome in prenatal screenings get aborted. Iceland has boasted that it has “eradicated” Down Syndrome since this is true for nearly every baby tested for Down syndrome. There are regularly only 1 or 2 children with Down syndrome born a year in Iceland. In Denmark, recent studies show that 98% of babies who test positive for Down syndrome are terminated in the womb, and the U.S. is not far behind with 67%.
It is true that many of the people rallying behind this movement often believe that this is a necessary step with hopes that it will eventually clear out all Down syndrome. To be gracious, many of them believe that the life set out for a mentally disabled person is not one of high quality, and to be fair, they are right in some aspects. Many children with mental and physical challenges visit hospitals more regularly in their first few years than I have my entire life. It is not an easy life for these boys and girls, but that doesn’t mean it is not a life worth living. Maybe we have a flawed understanding of what makes a life valuable.
To better understand the quality of life offered to those with physical and mental challenges, we can look at a few happenings in our culture that begin to do the work of “de-othering” such individuals.
GERBER BABY LUCAS
In the last few weeks, the baby food company, Gerber, announced that Lucas Warren will be the new face of the company known regularly as the “Gerber Baby.” Although the company’s change of “spokesbaby” happens annually, Lucas is the first Gerber Baby with Down syndrome.
Regardless of the Gerber’s reasons or intentions behind their decision, their recognition and display of Lucas promotes the idea that those with Down syndrome are no less human than others. It also confronts traditional views of beauty (or, perhaps more aptly in this situation, cuteness.) Lucas obviously looks different than other Gerber babies in the past, and for 91 years, Gerber has been associated with quintessential baby cuteness. Now, as Lucas takes over, people’s concept of a perfect baby will be challenged in a beautiful way.
Similarly, the book and film Wonder plays an important role of de-othering those with physical differences. The story follows a young boy named Augie Pullman who has a condition that affects facial tissues called Treacher Collins Syndrome. Although people with this condition often have little to no mental damages, their physical appearance causes people to question, stare, and distance themselves. Wonder’s narrative switches perspective between Augie and other kids without Treacher Collins, but it consistently focuses on the importance of recognizing the value in every individual.
The book and film were both praised for their anti-bullying messages, but the powerful story even goes beyond that. Portraying the effects and damages done by bullying is important, but Wonder does not simply condemn behavior. It invites people into a better way of life. Its portrayal of Augie as a uniting force of a diverse group of fifth-grade students shows that he carries great cultural weight and potential despite his physical challenges. It shows what the world could look like if people would better learn how to simply see and exist with people that are different.
This way of seeing people with physical and mental differences is not new by any means. Long before Augie and baby Lucas, American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, was giving her disabled characters a unique and powerful voice.
O’Connor herself suffered and eventually died from Lupus which slowly limited her body’s abilities. She was no stranger to being treated differently, and she grew tired of being seen as an “other.” One way she dealt with this, was her creation of odd, disabled characters that stood as the “good guy” of her stories instead of the able-bodied, “normal” people in her fictional world.
Even though O’Connor’s depictions of disabled characters are often hyperbolic, grotesque caricatures of people rather than model examples, if readers are willing to take O’Connor’s portrayal seriously, they will find that she does not make a mockery of disability, but rather, uses it to demonstrate fundamental truths about humanity and the beauty of grace.
One great example of this is her short story The Lame Shall Enter First where a young boy named Rufus Johnson with a cleft foot is taken in by a seemingly gracious man named Sheppard. Throughout the story, however, readers see that Sheppard is actually just a man who desperately tries to force a person with differences to fit into his narrow, able-bodied worldview.
In the context of the short story, this becomes obvious very early on when Sheppard thinks buying Johnson a new shoe that will hide his cleft food is what the boy needs and wants. Sheppard believes he can help Johnson by covering up or hiding his disability, even though the boy is perfectly fine with it. It is not Johnson who desires the cover-up shoe, it is Sheppard.
Since Johnson’s life does not fit into Sheppard’s narrow worldview, Sheppard repeatedly tries to force Johnson into being someone he can understand, someone ultimately just like him. To his surprise, Johnson furiously refuses to go along with him. He eventually tells him, “I don’t need no new shoe… and when I do, I got ways of getting my own”(Collected Stories 471). Instead of thankfully receiving the “help” offered from the able-bodied man, Johnson rejects the idea that he needs to fit into Sheppard’s understanding of the world in order to have value.
A FINAL NOTE
To be clear, I am not rejecting the fact that people with mental and physical challenges have difficult circumstances to deal with. There is surely much difficulty and adversity in this kind of living. However, the difficulty in one’s life does not diminish the value of it. Augie and Rufus Johnson are fictional characters that exemplify a satisfied and full life despite their various challenges. Likewise, Lucas Warren and Flannery O’Connor prove that real people with similar struggles can adjust well and live a satisfied life, accomplishing great things along the way.
Of course, there are plenty of conditions and disabilities that limit one’s ability to function on their own. But again, I will argue that this does not mean a lesser life. It simply means a different one, and perhaps us able-bodied folks have spent too much time searching for shoes that will cover up or eradicate these challenges instead of learning to love the people who deal with them.
Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.