What a week.
On Monday, I discovered “Bigger Dreams, Inc.”, a non-profit group in Florida who plan to purchase a recently closed state prison, once home to almost 500 prisoners, and convert it into housing for people with intellectual disabilities. Segregation, isolation, incarceration – is this to remain the destiny of people with intellectual disabilities? Have we learned nothing from a century of institutionalization? From Huronia? From Willowbrook – the “last great disgrace”? Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Please, let us remember.
On Tuesday, Irish Catholic Bishop Kevin Doran, in a train wreck of an interview on a breakfast radio program, argued that homosexuality was not something God intended. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise, he claimed, as ludicrous as suggesting that Down syndrome was something God intended. And everyone knows that there’s no way God would ever create a child with Downs, right? That’s obvious.
By Thursday, the inevitable global outrage at Dolan’s comments had erupted. Activists and allies of the LGBTQ community, myself included, railed against Dolan’s ignorance, his homophobia, his complete lack of understanding of the Gospel message of love. But the undercurrent of the opposition to the Bishop’s hateful remarks was absolute indignation at his audacity to compare being born gay – a normal part of human diversity – to being cursed with a disability as awful as Down syndrome. How dare he equate the two? A journalist for Irish Central wrote that obviously God didn’t intend for “cancer and Downs syndrome and leukemia and insanity and a host of other terrible misfortunes to happen”. Obviously.
And then, in the midst of it all, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, builder of peace, lover of weakness, was awarded one of the world’s most prestigious honours – the Templeton Prize. My Facebook page, my Twitter feed, my radio, were filled with “a beautiful recognition of people with disabilities”. Jean was asking questions like “Where are the schools for love? Who will teach us to love? Who will help us to come out from the frontiers that we lock ourselves behind?” He was describing people with intellectual disabilities as having “taught me more than all those teachers and professors in schools and universities that I have attended. They have taught me about what it means to be human and about how our societies can be transformed to become more peaceful and unified.” He was speaking of how people with disabilities had taught him a love that “rises above prejudice and fear of difference”. And the world was listening.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. But I know this much is true: undoubtedly, the world is a cruel and hostile place for people with intellectual disabilities. And undoubtedly, the world can change.