I’m going to step into slightly unknown territory today and talk a little bit about my work. I’m linking up with the SheLoves Magazine Synchroblog on the theme “We are the other”: raising the profile of the people who are marginalised in the world. There are a lot of themes I could have picked up but I think many of them will be more than fairly represented amongst the other blog posts so the “other” people group I’m championing today is those with Learning Disabilities (that’s British terminology; I believe the accepted term stateside is Intellectual Disabilities).
I’m so aware that in writing about a group of people to which I don’t belong, I run the risk of setting them apart as “Others” even in my good intentions. So there will be as many links as possible scattered throughout, and I really encourage you to read them. Start with this lady. She speaks much more eloquently and with more authority than I ever could. Seriously, read it before going any further here.
“He’s Unique.” I need say no more. (But I will, else there’s not much point in this post)
I listened to this discussion with Jean Vanier yesterday. Jean set up L’Arche, French for ‘The Ark’, when he invited two men with learning disabilities who had been living in an asylum, to come and live with him and share his life. There are now communities in more than 40 countries sharing that same vision of sharing life between people with and without learning disabilities.
One of the key things he talks about in the interview is the difference between admiring people and loving them. Admiring people sets them on a pedestal (He’s so brave); loving people stands alongside them. It allows them to get under your skin. One of the most empowering acts we can give to any person we normally keep behind the “Other” barrier is to let them drive you mad, make you angry.
I work in a school and residential setting for children and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Many of those people also have very complex health needs. They need a lot of help with a lot of aspects of life; but they are always to be the ones in control. Sometimes that’s really inconvenient if I need to look in a person’s bag for their equipment and they say ‘no’, or I’ve asked for advice about what I should buy from the tuck shop and they recommend my least favourite item. But that in a small way is redressing the power balance that this world thrives on.
During the Summer I went to meet the leader of the L’Arche community in Manchester. I had gone because I wanted to find ways of making Christianity more accessible to people with learning disabilities; I wanted them to have the same opportunities to meet God as the rest of us. My vision was for special meetings, designed with various needs in mind, to welcome those with all kinds of additional needs.
But Kevin’s vision was something completely different. His vision is to see that people with learning disabilities are seen as no different from those without. His team’s proudest venture is the disco night they run once a month for local families, where people of all walks and ages come and some of them have learning disabilities. Nobody comes out of pity, they come because they have a good time, every one of them.
I don’t quite know how to finish today. This is something of a journey that I am still on; this is a people group that is such fun to work with and yet opens up such deep questions about the meaning and value of life. Perhaps I’ll end with this:
L'Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies. And so they are seen as useless, and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. And it's a suffering body which brings us together. And it's attention to the body. You see, when somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. Bathing, helping people dress, to eat. It's to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There's a recognition. There's a contact. There's a relationship.
We see this with some of our people, like Françoise. Françoise came to our community in 1978, very severely handicap. She couldn't speak, she could walk a bit, she couldn't dress herself, she was incontinent, and she couldn't eat by herself. And today, she is nearly 30 years older. She has become blind and a beautiful person.
There was somebody who came to our community not too long ago who was, saw Françoise and the reaction was, 'Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?' And the leader of the little house said, 'But madam, I love her." I mean, it's as if you come in to a home and grandma is in the home and she has Alzheimer's and you say, 'What is — but she's my grandmother.' I mean, so it's based on the body, and then from the body, relationship grows.
-Jean Vanier, OnBeing.org
EVERY life is unique. EVERY life has value.