The word retarded has made the news lately. The Special Olympics designated March 3rd as a day of awareness about the hurtful and inappropriate ways that word is used. Before that, Sarah Palin excoriated Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, after he used the word to describe some of his fellow Democrats. Palin went on to defend Rush Limbaugh in his use of the word to also describe the Democrats, something that caused another round of blogposts and op-eds.
It's great to draw attention to a hurtful word. But the problems within our culture go far deeper than the use of the word retarded as a slur. When it comes to talking about disability in general, even those of us who want to be sensitive, just, and kind often don't know what to say or how to say it.
I write as the mother of a child with Down syndrome, yet I'll be the first to admit that I also struggle with language here. Do I call it "disability"? "Special needs"? "Developmental delays"?
The most telling example of my own loss for words came a few months ago. My daughter Penny and I went to a birthday party, and I met another mom. She said, "I have a child with special needs, too." She pointed out the window. "My daughter is ten. She's the one with the walker."
Over the course of the afternoon, I found myself watching this woman's daughter, whom I'll call Abigail. Abigail fed herself pizza. Abigail's body looked like spaghetti. She could crawl and walk with the walker, but she couldn't navigate the stairs. I didn't hear her speak more than one syllable, and the meaning of her utterances was often unclear to me. Abigail was thin and tall and beautiful, with smooth skin and kind eyes and a gorgeous smile.
And I didn't know what to say. I wanted to get to know Abigail and her mom, yet all I could do was watch. I thought about asking, "What is her diagnosis?" Or, "Where is she in school?" Or, "Do you like your therapists?" But all those questions seemed wrong, somehow, focused on figuring out Abigail's "problem."
And I wondered, how would Jesus have talked to Abigail's mother? How would Jesus have interacted with Abigail?
There are plenty of examples in the Gospels of Jesus ministering to people with disabilities of both the mental and physical variety. But John 9 serves as a particularly telling instance of the way Jesus both talks about disability and interacts with people with disabilities. It is here that the disciples ask the winning question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (v. 2). They betray their assumptions immediately: Blindness is the result of someone's personal sin. They also betray their own blindness. They fail to see the man who is standing right in front of them. Instead they see a problem, a theological conundrum for Jesus to solve.
Jesus answers, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (v. 3). He goes on to spit on the ground and apply a poultice of mud to the man's eyes. He instructs the man to wash himself, and the man finds that he can see. Jesus overturns assumptions immediately, not only in his answer but also in his refusal to reduce the man to a problem and his insistence on seeing the man as a human being. Jesus touches him. He allows the man to participate in his own healing. And the man becomes a witness to Jesus. He coins the phrase, "I was blind, but now I see!" (v. 25).
The scene ends with the man coming to faith in Christ, and with Jesus confounding the Pharisees: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains" (v. 41). Back to the disciples' original question: It is not the blind man who can't see. It's the rest of us.
This passage in John 9 teaches us at least three things. One, people with disabilities provoke questions, and often the questions are spiritual in nature. Two, Jesus overturns easy assumptions about the nature and cause of disability. Three, Jesus affirms the full humanity of persons with disabilities, while at the same time demonstrating the brokenness of everyone, with or without disabilities.
After my experience at the birthday party, I finally hit upon what I wish I had said. I realized I didn't really want to know Abigail's diagnosis. What I wished I had asked was, "What do you and Abigail enjoy doing together?" "What are the things you love most about your daughter?" "What makes Abigail special?"
I identify with the disciples, but I want to be more like Jesus. I want to reach out to those who are different from me. I want to understand our common humanity. I want to see the places in my heart and soul that leave me far less able to worship God than any physical or mental limitation ever could.
Language matters, as the Special Olympics and Sarah Palin have recently pointed out. But what matters even more is the language of our hearts.