In this installment of the “Loneliness Today” series, I would like to talk about loneliness among disabled people.[1] This is a topic that a few regular commenters have brought up in the comment sections on previous essays in this series; I initially wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to write on it, but I have decided to do so because of its personal importance to me and to so many people in our society. I am disabled myself. I have two or three different neurological conditions that individually are not particularly severe but combine to hinder my day-to-day functioning in sometimes significant ways. Many of the types of alienation and ostracization resulting from disability are experiences that I have had, in some form, myself.

The forces that impose loneliness on the disabled are in many cases more overt and genuine impositions than those confronting the young or on the old. The conditions for receiving disability assistance in the United States provide one example. The two main forms of income assistance for disabled people in the US are Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income (SSDI and SSI). Eligibility for both is assessed according to policies that–while nominally intended to reduce graft in the system–in fact signal to people receiving these benefits that their higher aspirations are held in contempt. For example, SSI actively penalizes those who get married by reducing benefits for married couples by 25% relative to two unmarried recipients living together. Moreover, SSI benefits are cut off entirely if an individual is found to have US$2,000 (approx. £1,500; €1,800; ¥217,000) in other cash assets; for a married couple the figure is US$3,000.[2] So much for the American legal system’s favoritism towards married couples, and so much for the idea that these programs are designed to help lift people out of poverty! The most advantaged SSI recipient, in terms of actually extracting benefits from the program, is romantically unattached and is not able to or not attempting to accumulate any appreciable financial cushion of his or her own. For a disabled person, attempting to involve oneself in a stable community in a way that (to use a sentimentalism) “gives back” is financially penalized under US law.

Moreover, in some cases people with disabilities are one another’s worst enemies when it comes to forging relationships and communities and standing in solidarity against the slings and arrows of life. I’ve alluded in the past to the fact that Helen Keller, one of the most famous advocates for the rights of people with physical disabilities, had a much lower view of the value of people with cognitive disabilities. Keller even at one point sided with the hard edge of the eugenics movement on a case involving medical care for a cognitively disabled newborn.[3] Conversely, when I would spend time with other disabled children as I was growing up, I’m deeply ashamed to say that those of us with more “invisible” disabilities would often speak quite disparagingly of the kids who were blind or deaf or used wheelchairs.

I mention the eugenics movement; this naturally raises the issue of the way people with severe disabilities are sometimes used as a cudgel in debates surrounding abortion and assisted suicide. As somebody writing for a Catholic website that upholds magisterial authority, I probably don’t need to specify what I personally believe about these practices. My views on these issues aren’t universal among disabled people, many of whom have pointedly left-liberal political commitments including on the so-called “hot-button” issues. However, I think most would agree that it creates an additional level of alienation when disability is used as a justification for abortions or suicides that the person speaking might not morally validate otherwise. At the time of this writing, Canada is considering a massive expansion to its assisted suicide law to include not just terminally ill patients but those with non-terminal chronic illnesses or disabilities as well, with broad support from the Canadian public.[4] Similar expansions have already occurred in the Low Countries and certain other jurisdictions in which assisted suicide has been legal for some time. Such policies—and the idea that fetal disability, too, calls for abortion as a first resort rather than serious thought about how to care for the disabled baby once it’s born—are often presented sentimentally, as ways to avoid lives that might be defined by chronic suffering. But as Flannery O’Connor (herself disabled) observed,

If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.[5]

Policymakers (left and right) and received wisdom alike are guilty of treating the lives of disabled people as less worthy–not only of protection but of community. People with disabilities aren’t explicitly denied participation in the human and social community so much as kept at genteel arm’s length from it. Appearing on the Shakespearean “stage” of life,[6] we’re given bit parts and at times quietly pushed offstage at the beginning or end of our lives.

Fortunately, the Church under Pope Francis is taking the time and effort to develop a robust theology of disability, particularly surrounding end-of-life care. Pope Francis has in the past played “the Hitler card” in his rhetoric about abortion and euthanasia motivated by disability,[7] and the Pontifical Academy for Life has made some efforts to establish a broad religious coalition against expansion of assisted suicide, as what has been proposed in Canada. But protecting disabled people from being actively forced off the stage is only one side of the coin here. The Church must also work to foster our full participation in society, in the cultural and economic life of the human family. It is on this subject that Francis once said that “[t]he world does not become better because only apparently ‘perfect’—not to mention fake—people live there, but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase.”[8]

Kind words and correct beliefs are not enough; further action must be taken to make the Catholic Church a welcoming place for disabled people, action that (in my opinion, and in my experience) is not truly being taken in many places. In Luke 14:13-14 we read:

When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.[9]

If we aren’t doing this, then we aren’t doing enough–and in many places, we indeed aren’t doing this. (For example, I’m only aware of one parish in my entire ecclesiastical province that celebrates Mass in American Sign Language.)[10] There are also certain dangers when it comes to talking about disability in terms of coming across as patronizing or as congratulating oneself for broaching the subject. However, it is obviously better to have the Pope explicitly discussing these issues than not! Both words and deeds are of utmost importance if people with disabilities are to achieve human flourishing and fulfill the universal call to holiness.

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[1] The use of the form “people with disabilities,” with the word “people” at the head of the phrase, is often considered more polite in mixed company, but there’s a lack of consensus on this among disabled people ourselves. I’ll be using both this form and “disabled people” interchangeably.

[2] B.J. Stasio, “People with Disabilities and the Federal Marriage Penalties,” Impact vol. 23 no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2010). https://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/232/22.html (accessed February 2, 2020).

[3] John Gerdtz, “Disability and Euthanasia: The Case of Hellen Keller and the Bollinger Baby,” Life and Learning XVI (2006): 491-500. http://www.uffl.org/vol16/gerdtz06.pdf (accessed February 2, 2020).

[4] Jim Bronskill, “New survey finds support among Canadians for broader assisted-dying law,” The Globe and Mail, January 23, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-new-survey-finds-support-among-canadians-for-broader-assisted-dying/ (accessed February 3, 2020).

[5] Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 227.

[6] My allusion here is to the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy in Macbeth, but the same image appears in As You Like It.

[7] Associated Press, “Pope denounces abortion as modern-day ‘white glove’ eugenics,” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, June 16, 2018, https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2018/06/pope-denounces-abortion-as-modern-day-white-glove-eugenics/ (accessed February 4, 2020).

[8] Cindy Wooden, “Disabled people must not be hidden away, says Pope Francis,” Catholic Herald, June 13, 2016, https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/06/13/disabled-people-must-not-be-hidden-away-says-pope-francis/ (accessed February 4, 2020).

[9] Revised Standard Version.

[10] A regular Where Peter Is commenter who read a draft of this essay also observed that in his experience many parishes assume that people with limited physical mobility will be content with Eucharistic visitors, rather than making an effort to actually help such people get to church.

Image: “The Poor, the Lame, and the Blind Called Into the Supper” from Charles Foster’s The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. From Wikimedia Commons.

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