Last weekend, I had two separate encounters where my voice was either not heard or not wanted. This was not the first time that has happened, and I know it will not be the last. This is a common occurrence for many folks with disabilities (be they physical, developmental, and/or emotional), and others who experience marginalization. I want neither pity nor encouragement, and I hope that this blog will help us become more intentional about how we interact with people with disabilities and how people with disabilities take some comfort/support in knowing they are not alone.
On Saturday, I went to run a couple errands in town. I stopped at Shoppers Drug Mart to buy some birthday cards, deodorant, chips, and a pop (exciting list!). When I was in the checkout line, a neighbour of mine came behind me. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about weekend plans, and then it was my turn to be served. I readied my debit card, and when I was handing it to the young woman to pay, the man behind me told her that he would be covering my purchases. I told her no, that wasn’t the case, and asked her to listen to me and take my card. She said, “If he wants to pay, then let him, save your money.” She took his purchases and his card. He left feeling glad he found me, glad to have helped me. I left feeling like my voice didn’t matter to either my neighbour or the cashier.
On Sunday, I went on a mini road trip with a dear friend to Port Dover, Ontario, a little town on the north shore of Lake Erie. A popular destination for motorcyclists every Friday the 13th, on lovely Sunday afternoons, it’s a popular place for anyone and everyone. For dinner, we decided on a hamburger, a hotdog, and French fries. Normally, I eat independently, but with a loaded, delicious hamburger, I asked my friend for help. He was happy to do so! We were having a wonderful time catching up and sharing stories. A man at the table beside us caught our attention and said, “Nice day, eh? It must be better for her now that it’s not too hot.” Yes, I was referred to in the third person, while sitting there. My friend wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but said, “Yes, it’s a lovely day.” They assumed he was my brother, but he corrected them saying we were friends, and used to be colleagues. Asking us where we lived, he responded with “I live in Toronto” and I jumped in with “I live in Ancaster.” They seemed surprised by this information, and soon after hearing where they were from, we all went on with our days. My friend and I talked briefly about how that was weird and challenging. We decided we handled it okay under the circumstances. I put it out of my head and heart, so that I could enjoy the rest of our day together, which I did! Later on, however, I felt again that my voice was not wanted or expected by the strangers we encountered. Both times, the voices of white, able-bodied men, were heard over mine.
This story of Jesus healing the man born blind is so rich; for now, I want to focus on the encounter between the Pharisees and his parents. I hear these words through the context of my present daily life. His parents confirmed that he was their son and that he was born blind. They said they did not know how his sight was regained nor who “opened his eyes.” Instead of speaking for him, they said, “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
John wrote that they said this out of fear of being excluded from the synagogue. I hear these as words of affirmation from parents to their son, and words of challenge from his loved ones to powerful people with harmful assumptions. Jesus sought the man out again, engaging him in conversation (not the parents nor the Pharisees). The man proclaimed his faith in Jesus as Lord—proclaiming the good news for himself and for the world as a newly minted preacher!
Jesus engaged the man and set him on a course of sharing the good news of God’s kingdom for the world. Both Jesus and the man offer me hope and encouragement in sharing the good news in my ministry, even and maybe especially when I feel discounted.
I hold a good deal of power and privilege. I am a white, educated, middle-class woman. I am an ordained minister, serving in a denominational office, and represent my own church (The United Church of Canada) on the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches. I have family and friends who love, support, and challenge me. In church and in the wider society, I am largely respected and encouraged. However, in church and in the wider society, I have encountered folks like the Pharisees, who would rather talk with and listen to people with and around me rather than listen directly to me. In church and in the wider society, I have felt my voice discounted and my agency taken away.
In sharing my story, in reflecting on my story with Jesus’ life of hope, I pray you hear my voice clearly. I pray that people with disabilities not only recognize their experience (though with sadness), but also hear the words of Jesus inviting us into relationship and into ministry. I pray that parents and loved ones of those living with disabilities hear the significance of lifting up our voices and challenging harmful assumptions. I pray that ministers and people seeking to live as disciples of Christ will continue to hear good news and follow Jesus’ example as we encounter and minister with people across all of our differences.