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Jim Cassidy, Untitled

The Ability of Disability

Health: Issue Three

Margaret Harper McCarthy

With “The Ability of Disability” we offer the third issue in our series on health and medicine. In many ways it is disability―its disfigurement, impairment, and vulnerability and dependence―which raises the objection we have to life at its beginning and end. (See our past two issues: “Beginning and End of Life” and “Re-Conceiving the Human Person”). It is disability that we want to avoid, be it the disability of the one about to be born or the one at death’s door, not to mention the “disability” that they will cause the mothers, fathers, and children who will be responsible for them. Just a couple of months ago the whole world watched as a young, attractive, recently married American woman explained why she had scheduled her own death for November 1st for the precise reason that she could see no value in the disabling effects of her recently diagnosed brain cancer. It is hard not to see that it is our attitude toward disability that determines how we will stand in the face of the more temporary kind brought on by disease―now that we have the “choice”―when we compare the action of Brittany Maynard and her family with that of our late editor Stratford Caldecott and his family. Describing his last months of life, “Strat’s” daughter Sophie writes:

When I think about the last six months or so of my father’s life, I remember the companionship we shared throughout my pregnancy and labor—my fatigue and impaired mobility mirroring his own. I remember the jokes we made about not having control over our bladders, and the consolation we gave each other over our fears of what lay ahead. But most of all, I remember the way his eyes widened as I placed his first grandchild in his arms, and the tenderness with which he watched her grow as he declined. I know with more certainty than I have ever known anything that if he were still here he would tell you it was worth living every last drop of life for those moments…..Was my father’s death lacking in dignity? If losing the ability to walk and eventually talk is undignified, then yes. If catheters and oxygen masks and sponge baths are undignified, maybe. These things are expressions of the body’s ultimate vulnerability, a total reliance on others. But to call vulnerability undignified is to allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that there is beauty—and yes, dignity—even in extreme weakness, in the whole imperfect, messy, and glorious business of being alive.[1]

The striking feature of all of the texts we have gathered for this issue, from our “classic reprint” from the founder of L’Arche, to the witnesses of those whose lives have been transformed by people with disabilities, to the books in review, is that all of them in one way or another look at disability not so much as an anomaly, but rather, as a window to one of the central features of the humanum as such. It is in living with the “poorest of the poor ” that we catch a glimpse of the “universal handicap” (Hauerwas) inscribed in the very fact of our being born, and, more fundamentally still, in the fact of our being created (Reynolds). We are vulnerability, we are dependence. Might it be that in the experience of “our poverties touching each other” (Nouwen) we are getting to the core of what it means that “the poor you will always have with you”?

The question, of course, is how to assess this distinctive “feature” of our humanity. If we identify the essentially human with self-determination, then the “disability” of our very coming to be in the messy process of conception and birth and our enfeebling and unpredictable approach toward death cannot but be a problem to take control of, as Maynard did when she decided to die “as she wanted.” And, turning this on its head, as does Foucault in his manifesto for “madness,” if disability is the exclusionary control word applied to those who desire liberation for pure self-creation, then, again, our very real (not socially constructed!) vulnerability still stands as an objection. What in the end, then, do we make of our essential disability?

Here, again, it is the disabled, in the narrow sense, who educate us. If they recall us to our “universal handicap” they recall us simultaneously to what that handicap instills in us―the desire to be loved (“do you love me”?)―and the humble readiness needed to receive and enjoy it. As St. John Paul II said: “You who are the abandoned and pushed to the edges of our consumer society; you who are sick, people with disabilities.... We need you to teach the whole world what love is” (Familiaris Consortio, 53). It is the coincidence in the disabled, then, of their poverty and richness, so evidently expressed in the “desire to celebrate life and have fun” (Vanier), that allows us to face disability, all disability, including our own, as an ability, the ability of love.

Lest we overlook the depth of the “ability of disability” in the experience of community―especially where it is lived as an expression of the Christian faith―let me add here another “text,” a prayer recently composed by Carlo Brown, a 12-year-old with Down Syndrome (my godson!). Carlo had gone to school without his uniform belt and was expecting the usual correction for this infraction, the “Roman Chair,” which involved sitting with his back to the wall for a period of time long enough to be, well…. a correction. Carlo was convinced (wrongly) that he would have to do the exercise for an entire hour and was in a state of fear about the coming trial. He thus went to the chapel and prayed with all his heart to be granted the strength to endure it. His aide, a non-believer, noticing that Carlo was speaking, began to write down the following words:

Dear God, Can you send the Holy Spirit above me and help me to understand your mercy.

And, help me with Your Holy strength.

I know about you in your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I Pray to God through your heart

to help me to understand about Mary.

I love you with my whole heart.

Can you send the Holy Spirit to come to me

and help me to understand about Mary who

watched her son suffer under Pontius Pilate.

She was stabbed in her heart with a sword of pain.

I understand your powerful Kingdom. Jesus, please take a key from Heaven and give it to Peter

so he can open the Kingdom of Heaven.

Help me have strength to make it through Roman Chair.

I love you with my whole heart.

From Carlo Brown through the Body of Christ.


It is in view of this ability―the ability to see the richness of our poverty, accompanied as it is by the One who is eternally “poor”―that we can face the most dramatic of disabilities, including our own.

[1] Article available at

Margaret Harper McCarthy is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the John Paul II Institute and the editor of Humanum. She is married and a mother of three.

Posted on December 4, 2014

Recommended Reading

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
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Washington, DC 20064