Lessons from the Most Vulnerable

At their best, journalists are supposed to speak truth unto power. Sadly, too many utter power unto truth. And one of the fundamental truths of the modern age is that the most vulnerable members of our society, and thus those whom, as Catholics, we are most supposed to defend, are the handicapped. At every stage of their lives they are targeted: in the womb, when they are older, when they cannot speak for themselves.

This became startlingly clear for me when my sister, who lives in the United Kingdom, gave birth to her second child. Katie was born several weeks premature and spent rather a long time in hospital. She came home accompanied by a nursing team, to a house set up to give her oxygen. When she was tiny, Katie had two strokes and is now classified as autistic. This, by the way, after an abortion had been suggested earlier in the pregnancy; my sister did what any morally elegant person should at that stage – she changed her doctor.

Much as we congratulate ourselves on our liberal attitude towards those who are different, we regularly discriminate against the Katies of the world. Goodness me, her mum and dad have witnessed it for years. Even had to change churches because their daughter was not accepted. “Of course you are welcome here, but some of the members of the congregation are disturbed by the noises your daughter makes. It’s not what I think of course, not what I think at all.”

Don’t get in the way, don’t speak too loudly or make any of us, the lucky ones, feel in any way uncomfortable. There’s a ramp out there so you can get in, but once inside you better conform and shut up. We’ll fine people if they leave their cars in handicapped parking spots, but won’t turn a hair if they talk to handicapped people as if they were dumb animals.

One friend who has an autistic teenage daughter told me that, “it’s like living every day with truth in the house,” a startling, light, bright phrase. He then told me that when his daughter was small, his wife would receive aggressive, judgmental looks from passers-by. Their silent glances spoke loudly: “Why would you keep such a child, why would you have such a child? Have you not heard of abortion?”

Katie’s parents have lived the same experience. Yet Katie herself is supremely unaware of this hatred. She is more concerned with things such as jigsaws, and Katie solves jigsaws like Supergirl. She starts not from the outside but from the middle. The complex shapes that so baffle us take form perfectly in her beautiful mind. Wonderful pictures come alive and speak. Speak in a way Katie cannot. Hey, she’s not “like” Supergirl. She “is” Supergirl.

She doesn’t have an extensive vocabulary, even though her parents have added speech therapist to their many other roles. But sometimes words aren’t so important. I remember arriving in England for a vacation and Katie walking straight up to me, grabbing my hand and taking me to a chair. Her parents had told her that I would be tired after the flight. She then began to talk to me as if I’d never been away. The conversation had never ended; the bridge of love had never been closed.

It’s true that she doesn’t always look you in the eye and that her attention seems to wander, and that she appears to be distracted. Unlike, of course, those people who always look you straight in the eye and seem to take in every word you say. Then forget your name and care not a fig for your life and anything in or about it.

I sit down and chat to my sister. Has it been difficult? “Yes, but also joyous beyond belief. A new adventure every day and a new path of discovery.” She pauses: “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Katie has made us all grow so much, taught us things we didn’t know about ourselves, about what it really means to be human. Yes we cry, but we also laugh. Actually being a mum to Katie is all about saying yes to things. Yes to life, yes to love. Yes. ”

At which point Katie trots her way into our conversation, into our world. She wants to watch an old video of The Jungle Book. She’s seen it hundreds of times, but that doesn’t matter. It pleases her and she learns from it. Katie doesn’t need the latest, expensive toys or fashionable luxuries. She’s so much more than that. Perhaps so much more than us.

I increasingly believe that the handicapped are God’s gift to us, who act as a catalyst to produce and provoke love in hearts that are sometimes hard and cold. I know that Katie is such a gift, and I know she can teach us all so very much. Fly Supergirl, fly Katie, and never care for a moment about those who would clip your wings.

  • Heresy - Thursday, May 17, 2012