The case for loving the disabled

The value of the disabled and the love they inspire is the subject of a new 900-page book, Far From the Tree
William West | 22 November 2012
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A new 900-page book on the disabled, Far From the Tree, offers many facts and reflections that could be useful for those who are trying to turn the tide against the abortion of disabled babies. 

Some readers may be put off by author Andrew Solomon’s inspiration for writing the book – the fact that he is both dislexic and gay and argues that gay people and the disabled are marginalised in a similar way to the disabled. But it would be unfortunate if this weighty tome with its many valuable observations and insights, were to be overlooked. As one journalist writing for The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown, has summed up: the book is about “love and how it manages to weather hurricanes”.

Mr Solomon believes that many people are afraid of the 550 million people around the world who are disabled because they remind them of how fragile their own wellbeing is – something that few of us can exercise very little control over. He says that this fear has led to many atrocities against the disabled. Hitler, for instance, killed 270,000 disabled people, rejecting them as “travesties of human form and spirit”. As recently as 1973, the city of Chicago still had legislation making it illegal for disabled people to be seen in public. In 2006, the Royal College of Obstetricians in London suggested that doctors should consider “killing infants with extreme disabilities”. And, of course, there is Australian philosopher Peter Singer who argues without shame that “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Such attitudes continue to have tragic repercussions and in this respect Mr Solomon makes an important point about what gay people do share with many disabled people – the unjustifiable violence they experience at the hands of those who treat them as though they are less than human. 

(Mr Solomon points out that he himself was mercilessly bullied when he was young and still takes prescription medication for the paralysing depression he developed as a consequence. He based the book The Noonday Demon, a popular memoir of depression, on this experience.) 

On the positive side, he notes that even Charles Darwin believed “the most fragile human beings were essential to our ethical evolution, to the emergence of conscience and altruism in the species”. And philosopher Jean Vanier, argued in Becoming Human that disabled people should be treated with complete equality.

While 70 per cent of expectant mothers who find they are carrying a baby with Down sydnrome will have the child  aborted, Mr Solomon points out that many of those who go ahead with the pregnancy do not regret the decision.  

Interestingly, a poll conducted in Canada which asked parents of kids with Down syndrome if they would have their child cured of the condition if they could, found that 25 percent of parents would not change their child. And because many mothers are refusing an abortion the population of people with Down Syndrome in the US is set to double by 2025.

“The world is made more interesting by having every sort of person in it,” Mr Solomon writes. “That is a social vision. We should alleviate the suffering of each individual to the outer limits of our abilities.”

Solomon points out that many people classed as disabled are actually quite happy with their condition and even see it as giving them an advantage in many respects. An example is those who suffer from profound deafness. “An increasing number of deaf people maintain they would not choose to be hearing,” Mr Solomon states. He says that many deaf couples want to produce deaf children to help to build up “deaf culture” and experience what they believe is a “unique, valuable way of being”.

“Over all,” Mr Solomon says, “and it sounds shocking, and I would not have believed it before I began this work – but Deaf culture seemed to me to be as valid as African-American culture. And in the same way that I don’t question that African-American people would like to have children who look like them and feel that they can convey a sense of cultural identity that will make those children do well, despite social prejudice that persists, even in the Obama era, against black people in America, I think that deaf people have the right to seek deaf children if that’s what they want to do.”

Mr Solomon found a similar attitude among people with Down Syndrome, the biggest group of disabled people in the US, now numbering 400,000 people. The life expectancy of a person with Down Syndrome can now be as high as 50, and continues to rise.

Even people with autism see advantages in having the condition, something illustrated by the film Temple Grandin which tells the story of a young woman with autism who turned her sometimes crippling disability to her advantage, revolutionised the design of abattoirs and eventually became a highly respected university professor. 

Most of all, Mr Solomon’s book should encourage parents of the disabled, particularly those who are preparing for the arrival of a disabled baby. He writes: “Parenting had challenged these families, but almost none regretted it. They demonstrated that, with enough emotional discipline and affective will, one could love anyone. . . Fewer and fewer people are mortified by who they are.” 

After reading Mr Solomon’s book and conducting his interview with him, Ian Brown goes on to reflect on his own relationship with an intellectually disabled son and sums up what many other parents feel when he suggests that his son has “given me the chance to escape my own clutches and love him as he is, and hence myself as I am, rather than as the demanding world would have us be”.

William West is a Sydney based journalist and the Editor of Perspective magazine.

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