“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Deconstructing disability: Role perceptions/holy innocent

In 1972, Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, wrote about what he called deviant role perceptions. These were ways in which persons with disability were sometimes perceived. The word "deviant" should be thought of in terms of differing from the norm (American Heritage dictionary). The word deviant itself can be very charged in its connotations. I thought it might be interesting to examine each of these role perceptions briefly and think about the applications for today. The following role perceptions are from Wolfensberger.

7. The deviant as a holy innocent

The notion of persons with cognitive disability as being holy innocents is a perception which permiates Christianity. We hear of people being "God's special children" or "Angels unaware." No doubt those who use such characterizations are in some way trying to elevate the perspective of persons with disability, or encourage the parents or families of these persons, however, if they are God's special children. . .
  • Why do we fear them?
  • Why don't we want them in our own family?
  • Why aren't Christian churches working feverishly to bring them into the fellowship?
  • Why aren't Christian schools looking for every possible way to serve them?

You see, those who say they are God's special children, really don't believe they are. If they actually did, their behavior would change toward them. I don't agree that they are God's special children, but if I did actually think that I would base my perspective on scripture, and it would hopefully impact the way I live. It's like saying "We are all the same in the eyes of God." Well, if you believed that, you would be as interested in bringing persons with cognitive disabilities into your church as you would business professionals.

But there are other issues with the holy innocent perspective. The holy innocent is incapable of voluntarily committing evil or doing wrong. They are simply misunderstood. By saying such things, you remove their humanity in that the Bible is crystal clear that we have all sinned and have hearts that are "desperately evil." I do no favors when I act in a paternalistic manner when I see a child doing something wrong by saying that he can't help himself.

When a friend of my son's was young, he had an anger problem. When I confronted his parents about the problem, they replied that people just get angry in their family and that he can't help himself. My response was that he will help himself when he is at my house or he won't be welcome there anymore. Can you imagine an employer of a person with a disabilty who does something innappropriate in the work environment gathering customers together and saying, don't mind him, he is a holy innocent and really either can't help himself, or is basically unable to do something wrong. They would indicate their position on his perspective by no longer frequenting the store. By holding persons with disability to the same high standard for behavior as others, we challenge them to grow and our high expectations will spur them on to do better.

A friend of mine with cognitive disability called my home once when my son was younger. He had been trying to reach me, and as we all face at times trying to reach someone, was having trouble. He became frustrated and started swearing at my son over the phone. My son was old enough to take it in stride, and told me of the interaction. My response was to contact my friend and tell him that if he ever swore at my son again he would no longer be my friend. My friend was just a man, a man who had lost his temper and needed to be called on it. Since that time, he will still get frustrated with me at times, but he won't swear at anyone in my family because I applied the same standard to interactions with him that I would with anyone.

The holy innocent also has about it an infantilizing aspect. When preschool children do something wrong, although we correct them, we tend to smile inwardly. At times their misbehavior is almost cute. That same perspective is often applied to adults with developmental disabilities. But we do them no favors if we treat such behavior as cute. A general public which has little tolerance will not look on the behaviors as cute. In fact the behaviors might actually support the societal construction they have assimilated from the environment (using Tylers words see 10/1 blog).

Last evening in a class I am teaching at California Baptist University, a student commented to me that persons with disability, specifically cognitive disability have a "special relationship with the Lord." My first response was to tell her that so did she and so did I, however, I then went on to ask where in the Bible does it indicate that persons with disability have a special relationship with God? She mentioned several verses which have been cited in this blog which indicate that God is particularly interested in the "things that are not." But once again, when it was all boiled down, we ended with the position that somehow simply because a person has a disability, they become a holy innocent, a special child of God.

Even though those who use this phrase mean well, we have to get them to either, 1) stop using it, 2) justify it from scripture, or at the very least 3) get them to act as if they really believe it is true.



1 comment:

Jen Foster said...

Thanks for your thought provoking words and actions, Gordon. I really appreciate the challenge to focus on the heart issues.