The United Nations designated 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons. But how much nearer to solution are the problems of the world's 500 million disabled people?
NOT FAR FROM where I am writing, a man sits in a wheelchair on a busy downtown sidewalk. This morning, like so many other mornings, he painstakingly maneuvered himself to a position under a storefront awning. There he sits, slightly out of the path of harried pedestrians. His mind is absorbed in the confused jangle of city noise and the swirling fumes from passing buses and automobiles. He sits a spectator. Surrounded by society, watching the world go by. I wish he knew life offered more than that.
The Staggering Figures
Five hundred million individuals — one out of every nine persons on earth — are disabled by birth, accident or illness. Millions of these suffer from arthritis, disabling heart or blood pressure problems, chronic bronchitis, asthma or emphysema, and diabetes. Other millions are blind or visually impaired, or totally deaf. The list doesn't stop there; it goes on to include other degenerative diseases, birth defects, injuries from accidents, orthopedic problems, muscular and neurological afflictions, mental retardation — that's an awful lot of human suffering! What is the reason for all these debilitating handicaps? The Plain Truth magazine for more than 45 years has pointed out the reason for this sea of human woe. Laws have been broken — living laws. Sickness, diseases, disabilities are the penalties we pay for laws our ancestors, other humans or we ourselves have transgressed. The Plain Truth is commissioned to announce a world in which these problems will vanish. Believe it or not, there is coming a new age — the peaceful World Tomorrow under the government of God — when all people will be taught the right way to live. The result will be that sickness and ill health will cease to plague the human race. The prophet Isaiah pictured that time: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing..." (Isa. 35:5-6). But what about today? Chronic ill health and disability are facts of life millions deal with every day. One reader of The Plain Truth wrote: "I know full well that the ultimate hope of this world is the Kingdom of God. I know that is the only way true utopia can be achieved. However, we still have handicapped people in this present age. What about them? Can we just ignore them?" No, we can't! People have certain responsibilities to fulfill in their regard that have too long been neglected.
While member states of the United Nations are in accord — this is in itself remarkable! — that much needs to be done to better the quality of life for the disabled, waiting for national governments to resolve the problems is futile. A pamphlet put out by the government of Ontario, Canada, is right on target: "The success of 1981 really depends on what happens on the community level. When it comes down to it, the lives of disabled people can only become more satisfying and productive if individuals take action." The action of individuals. That is what makes the real difference. A society can pass certain laws setting standards regarding employment, mobility, special training, assistance, housing, education. That may be necessary. But it's not the whole answer. More important are individuals and decisions made by individuals or groups of individuals. It's the employer afraid to take a little risk, the landlord who doesn't want to be bothered by "special" cases, the impatient driver who leans on his horn because the slow-moving arthritic pedestrian is taking too long to cross the street. It's the person who stands and watches someone in a wheelchair try to surmount a curb or open a heavy swinging door. Or, worse, it's the patronizing way in which some offer their help. It's the social barriers that cannot be broken down by legislation. The blank gaze. The uncomfortable, embarrassed reaction of those who, upon encountering an impaired person, are somehow forcibly reminded of their own fragile mortality.
Keeping a Distance
Many of the problems of the disabled are due to simple thoughtlessness on the part of others. "Bring the wheelchair over to the front here," instructed an usher at a public performance. The "wheelchair"? What about the person seated in it? Has he or she ceased to exist? Is the individual invisible? Part of the chair per. haps — a mere component along with the steel, plastic, rubber and fabric that make up the mechanical contrivance? No, this handicapped individual is a warm, living flesh-and-blood human being — a human being who happens to be seated in a wheelchair, but a human being first and above all. Take the case of the blind person in a restaurant with some seeing friends. The waitress appears and asks each individual around the table what he would like to order. Then she comes to the blind man and asks: "And what would he like to eat?" Why doesn't she ask the blind man himself? He has ears to hear and a mouth to speak. He has a mind to think. He is an individual personality. This is not to say the waitress deliberately snubbed the blind person. She did not. She just reacted as people often react: they try to maintain a certain distance between themselves and what is not "normal." That is a barrier that is erected individually and that can only be broken down by each individual. A successful blind lawyer spoke for millions of chronically ill and disabled when he said he wants people to treat him "like a human being who happens to be blind, not a blind being who happens to be human."
Being a Good Neighbor
Nowhere does the simple biblical principle of "love your neighbor as yourself' apply more directly than in relations between the physical haves and the handicapped have-nots. God's law expresses the way of out-going concern for others — the way of caring. It teaches patience. What might be considered a person's minimum responsibility toward the disabled is stated in Deuteronomy 27:18, "Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way." And again in Leviticus 19:14, "Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind...." What these laws are revealing is that it is wrong to take advantage of another's weakness. This principle covers a wide range of actions from deliberately seeking to harm those who are impaired to such "harmless" practices as taking an automobile parking place reserved for the handicapped. But the intent of God's law of love goes much further than that. The patriarch Job, while recounting his righteousness, was able to say: "I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame" (Job 29:15). Job didn't allow any psychological barrier to keep him from getting involved in helping others. He forgot about himself and sought to be useful to the less fortunate. Do you know anyone who is sick or infirm? When did you last visit that person or minister to his or her needs? What about at least writing or telephoning? Jesus said that those who inherit his Kingdom would be those who, among other things, have visited and cared for the sick (Matt. 25:34-46). (It might as well be pointed out here that there are some disabled people who are too proud to accept help, even the kind of help Jesus said should be given. False pride is a problem to be overcome) Most people are familiar with the term "Good Samaritan." But few remember what the Samaritan did to receive commendation from Jesus. While traveling along a road, the Samaritan showed himself to be a good neighbor to one who had become physically disabled and was lying by the roadside (Luke 10:25-37). Two "religious" individuals came along first. They should have known better, but kept their distance, not wanting to become involved — though one did take the opportunity to look (verse 32). They both "passed by on the other side" (verses 31-32). Ask any of the millions of chronically ill or impaired: How many people have you encountered today who have "passed by on the other side," though they may have taken enough time to look? How many have erected a barrier — kept their distance? The Samaritan, when he saw the disabled man, got involved. He "went to him" (verse 34) and did what he could to be helpful. Jesus said to any who would be His true followers "Go, and do thou likewise" (verse 37). Charity? No, that's not what most disabled people are looking for. Help when it's really needed, yes. But mainly just a fair chance. An opportunity for each to do his best in society, industry, education, recreation, business — any phase of life.
Lumping Them All Together
According to some analysts, the progress being made over several years to grant more mobility, freedom of access and opportunities to the disabled has now slowed down or even been reversed. The main reason is that money is tight. Funds are not available. What with budget cuts, inflation, high interest rates and the many causes scrambling for a piece of the economic pie, what has been called the silent minority is pushed to the back of the line. The so-called silent minority got its name in the past because there was no real organization on behalf of the handicapped. Various organizers complained that it is hard to put together marches and sit-ins when it's impossible or at least difficult for the demonstrators to travel and take part in a physically exhausting exercise. And blind people and people in wheelchairs do not threaten to riot, burn buildings and loot stores if they do not get their way. Nevertheless, of late the silent minority has become more vocal. The resulting increase in public awareness has Jed to the term "surprising minority" or "unexpected minority." But putting the overall label of a minority on a group of diversified individuals has dangers of its own. It is a mistake to put all disabled people into one category. There is as much or more that is different between a deaf person and a person with no legs as there is similar. Each impaired person should be judged on his own, not as a member of a single minority. Though some few handicapped are difficult to employ, not responsible, unable to carry on normal personal relationships, dependent on charity and whatever else disabled people are supposed to be, the vast majority of handicapped are none of these. The assumption that there is a single handicapped minority harms the very ones it is supposed to benefit.
Promoting discussion of the problems of the disabled, making the public aware, utilizing legal channels may help bring about some changes — it is to be hoped. But frankly, this is not God's society and we should not expect today's world to ever be reshaped and fashioned by the efforts of human beings into a utopia, fair and just for all. There is even widespread disagreement as to exactly what is fair and workable. For example, is requiring a public transport system in a large city to have wheelchair lifts in all its buses a reasonable demand? Besides the considerable expense to install and maintain such facilities, accurately scheduling arrivals and departures for all other riders becomes a real headache because of irregular occasions when it takes four or five minutes to use the wheelchair lift. The whole system suffers for a small group whose needs could be met in other ways. Is it reasonable to expect that most doors, most stairs and most restrooms in most buildings be accessible to all disabled? Actually, it is not possible for all disabled. It's not just a question of wheelchairs: there are the stretcher- and bed-ridden. Don't they also have the right to go or at least be taken anywhere they wish? Where should the lines be drawn? Who is to decide which doors, which stairs, which buildings, which restrooms? Sometimes an accommodation made for one infirmity creates a problem for another. It seemed like a good idea to lower curbs at intersections so certain handicapped people could easily cross the street. Then it was discovered that, because there was no curb, some blind people did not realize where the sidewalk ended and walked out into the traffic. Having equal opportunity for employment is an admirable objective. And no doubt there are many disabled people who work as hard or harder than their normal counterparts. And they should be given every chance. Others however, do not — cannot — compete in the labor market. To what extent, then, should an employer be asked to subsidize a willing, valiantly trying, but, alas, unproductive worker just to help the disabled person feel a sense of worth? And what about schools? There was a story televised about a person studying for a degree at a university. What was unusual was that this person was helpless from the neck down (it appeared as though both arms and legs were missing). He had to be carried from one class to another. Obviously, he deserves an A for effort and spunk. But some wondered if schools should be required to accept students with such severely limited physical abilities and even shortened life expectancy, when other applicants of equal mental capacity, but superior physical state, have to be turned down to make room for them? Such questions cannot be fairly and fully answered in today's society, which is cut off from contact with the Creator God. That's why we keep pointing to, the coming World Tomorrow. Then — under the government of God — such questions will not have to be answered because sickness, disease and accidents will no longer incapacitate large segments of the population. The World Tomorrow will be a time when the nations will all learn the way to peace, to physical and spiritual health, and have forgiveness of physical and spiritual sins. Those who are now sick or handicapped, and live into the World Tomorrow, will be healed. Remember, divine healing is the forgiveness of physical sin — broken laws.
In the Meantime...
If you are one of the millions of chronically ill or disabled today, what should you do — what can you do — while waiting for the complete solution to all of this world's problems to be brought to earth by Jesus Christ? First, come to understand what the Bible reveals about the laws of health and divine healing. God is not involved today in healing all the multitudes of sick and afflicted people in this world. This is not God's world, but man's. This is a time in which man is allowed to go his own ways and reap the penalties. God has, however, bound himself to heal those individuals who turn to him. But he hasn't promised when, only that he will do it. It may happen immediately; it may not happen until the next life. (To learn more about this vital subject, write for free copies of the booklets The Plain Truth About Healing and Principles of Healthful Living) Second, whatever constructive things you can do, do them. Take advantage of any opportunity open to you. Push for more opportunities. Improve yourself. Live life to the full as much as you are able. Maybe the man in the wheelchair mentioned at the beginning of this article is doing all in the world he is capable of doing. For him it might be a monumental accomplishment to just wheel himself out to the sidewalk to watch the passersby. On the other hand, is it possible he could be using some of his time to better advantage? If nothing else, there are vast numbers of books to read — in print or, for the blind, in Braille. There is so much to be learned and experienced through reading, rather than risk letting the mind grow dull through lack of use. And above all, whether a person is active or not, there is the Book of books to study — God's Word — which gives hope, a purpose to life and instruction about how to obtain eternal life. Third, maintain a positive attitude. There is no imaginable physical condition but what is not made worse by a negative attitude. Bitterness, discouragement, despair — these are the greatest disabilities of all. To have an attitude that is genuinely positive, one has to have hope of some kind. Something to cling to. Something to work for, to live for. If you would like to learn about the greatest hope human beings — regardless of physical, economic, social or any other condition — can have, read our free booklet Why Were You Born? It will give purpose to your life, making present weaknesses and infirmities bearable.