A common pattern in the media features people with disabilities as “the inspiration.” You know the story. Someone who has a serious injury, or who is born with a disfiguring condition, overcomes great odds to find success. There’s nothing wrong with inspiring others or being inspired by another person’s story. But there is a problem when this theme is so dominant in telling stories about people with disabilities. Because it is such a dominant theme, it implies that people with disabilities have worth because they inspire others, and it implies that people with disabilities who are not an inspiration do not have worth.
Durbin is a trailblazer. When African American Jackie Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he blazed the trail by breaking the color barrier in the major leagues. Jesse Owens blazed the trail at the 1936 Olympics. Tillie Anderson blazed the trail for women in competitive cycling in the 1890’s as did Amelia Earhart in aviation in the 1920’s.
Each of these people may have been inspirations to others as they broke new ground. But their primary role in society was not to inspire others, but to blaze the trail. Until Jackie Robinson, no African American had played Major League Baseball since the 1880’s. Jesse Owen blew apart Hitler’s conception of the Aryan master race. Tillie Anderson shocked the male-dominated biking world with her cycling prowess. Amelia Earhart did the same in the nearly all-male world of flying.
People’s stereotypes about African Americans and women didn’t allow room in their mental framework for Owens winning races in the Olympics or Anderson winning biking races. Similarly, people’s mental frameworks don’t have room for people with disabilities in many roles in society. As Owens broke barriers, so James Durbin breaks a barrier by his performance prowess on American Idol.
Likewise, the staff of American Idol blazed a trail by allowing him to compete. Many people view someone who has a disability and assume that their disability affects and colors and disables their entire personhood, and makes them incapable of doing anything well. James Durbin helps dispel that stereotype, and the staff of American Idol encouraged it for which they too deserve credit. I assume that he was not cut because of his disability. I hope that he was cut because the judges deemed that the three finalists were better. So be it. That’s the way competitions work.
I’m delighted he was given a chance to shine, and he did. I hope that churches will give people who have disabilities an opportunity to shine: in leadership roles, in worship leadership, in leading small groups, in all other areas of ministry.
Will you take this idea to your own church? Who in your church has gifts that are not being used because people are writing him or her off? How can you advocate for him or her with the church leadership? Will you?