Today I had the privilege of hearing a talk by a man named Ken. Ken is an advocate who regularly goes to speak to legislators, and he often gives presentations to schools. An optimistic, confident, charismatic person who has a way with words, he was a superb presenter. Ken also happens to have cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, is not able to use his arms or legs, and he communicates by typing on an iPad with a device that is strapped to his head. Ken presented to a group of students at Mount St. Mary’s about his experiences living with cerebral palsy and how he advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.
I think that anyone who interacts with Ken would agree that he is a man full of life. You can’t help but be drawn in by his passion and his determination. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that too often, when we encounter people with disabilities, or even when we encounter people who we perceive as radically different from us, we view their lives as less than ours. We see them as being only partially filled with life. We may not openly admit this or actively discriminate against them, but those stereotypes and prejudices that we try to keep hidden, or may not even be aware of, are revealed in our subtle actions and words. When we make assumptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do, we are attempting to rob them of their freedom and their potential. When we label them as incapable or inferior, we are creating a distinction between “us” and “them.” Any time we categorize, label, or stereotype someone who is different from us, we are believing that their lives are in some way emptier than our lives.
The irony is that when we try to limit the fullness of others’ lives, we are really preventing ourselves from leading full lives. Sometimes I think we have the tendency to shut down when we encounter people who are different than us, because difference challenges us, maybe even scares us. Maybe we’re afraid of how we’ll react, or we’re afraid of what we may learn about ourselves from coming into contact with someone who is different from us. After all, it’s easier to make a judgment about the value of someone else’s life than to really take a close look at our own. It’s safer to stick to the familiar than to risk exposing ourselves to something that could threaten to change our entire outlook on the world, forcing us to reevaluate how we are living and sending us back to square one. But by closing our hearts when we are faced with people who are different from us, or people we may not admire or even like, we are cutting ourselves off from a direct line of communication with God.
I believe that we can learn from every single person we encounter, no matter how brief the interaction. God speaks to us and loves us through one another. He often shares his wisdom and reveals his plan for us through the people around us. After all, God made us into beings who long to be in relationship with each other for a reason. But God doesn’t limit Himself to communicating through a select few “holy” people—if we believe that every single person is made in the image of God, then we must believe that every single person can be a channel through which God loves and speaks. When we see people as less than us, whether that is because of a disability, socioeconomic status, certain personality traits, or any other reason, we are choosing to cut ourselves off from a channel of love and wisdom.
If we only choose to see God in the people that we think we can relate to, we aren’t getting the full picture of who God is—we’re only getting a very small part of the story. It’s easy to see God in people who are like us, but it can be more of a challenge to see God in people who are different than us. Until we open ourselves fully to people we think we will have a hard time relating to, we won’t be fully open to God. When God put us on this earth, He filled each of us to the brim with life. God communicates through each and every one of us in an equally important way. Today, I listened to a part of God’s message communicated through Ken—a part of the message that only Ken could tell. We all have a chapter of God’s story within us. Our job is to listen to each other and piece together that story.