National Association of Parents of Autistic People
The following address was first published in La rosa blu,
a disability journal of ANFFAS ONLUS, 15/1, May 2007
This morning I have learnt many things, both in the field of scientific knowledge and in the area of emotions. It’s as if we had put a spotlight upon a society which, as we know, is competitive, and has recently become doggedly focussed upon stimulating competition by offering rewards to its better endowed members on the spurious ground that they are more deserving.
What about the weak, the lame, the disadvantaged?
To feel welcome is an existential requirement, and human existence is what matters most. I perceive feeling welcome in the shape of two huge hands embracing and guarding human existence, being loved.
Do not deny suffering.
Within the realm of disability, there is suffering. This is a mystery which affects us deeply and seems to us due to bad luck. Do not deny suffering. There is no fault and there is no shame in suffering. Also, do not deny diversity.
I have heard some legitimate arguments regarding terminology. This may not be too much of a problem if compared to the many other problems besetting us; yet I find that it is more dignified to call a spade a spade. I recall that many years ago I heard a knock on the door, I opened it and asked: ‘Who is it?’, and there was a scruffy-looking stranger. He seemed meek and peaceful, and said ‘I am a beggar’ with a trace of nobility in his voice. It didn’t occur to me to reply ‘No you are not, you are rich in a different way’. I then grasped that, for every facet of the human condition, nobility of being does not need euphemisms.
We do not possess the supernatural gift of being able to eliminate suffering or the diversities of disability, and need to accept reality, by reflecting that success will occur not through ‘training’, but by revisiting life and its achievements (life means art, but also ‘ludus’, i.e. the art of living), with all necessary advances. Fundamentally, it is the spiritual dimension that distinguishes humans from various other creatures who surpass humans in sensory perception, in ocular and olfactory sensitivity and also in physical strength demonstrated in jumping, running and fighting. The human spirit is unique, regal and noble in all manifestations of body and mind. The art and beauty of living reside in the spirit.
This morning I browsed through a brochure, saw some photographs and read a few sentences which stood out for the terseness of their style. I reflected that our constant, rather foolish stubbornness in seeking quick-fix occupational solutions (which often result in a reversed exile) has to pay for its errors. I recall that, when I was an industrial commissioner, I came across the case of a disabled young man, who had been employed in a carpentry shop where he had to sandpaper the same piece of timber all day long. Granted, he was receiving a wage: but was his condition a by-product of industrial legislation or of cruelty?
I have mentioned this episode because I am convinced that our dream of similarly ‘homogenizing’ social conditions in the same way is a mistake. A more desirable homogeneity is what emerged this morning while I was listening to some testimonies: it is the awareness of living together (a confirmation of the ‘right to life’); mutual support; that caring disposition which, beyond the assistance provided by social services, represents the core of the ‘new commandment’ for the people.
A civilization based on love is not the same as a civilization based on competition.
In the meantime, we ask ourselves what kind of future awaits our children. We will say ‘I am now the guardian, and have never been distracted by sleepiness or tiredness from the task of protecting this child of mine, whom I love. When I am no longer here, what will be my child’s future?’. I weigh up all my angst and reply with another question: ‘Should that other child, the child of others, be left without a mother and a father, would you do something for that child? for that child who isn’t yours?’. I am convinced that, if the answer is ‘yes’, the future will no longer be a problem and I can hope in it.
Familiarity with disability and its pain, deep in our hearts via our parenthood, opens up a vista over the same pain and coexisting struggle, and requires a more widespread, shared, socially aware familiarity. An extreme, shocking example coming to mind are reports that disabled newborn babies have been abandoned, though many couples volunteer to adopt them. A child is a child when we bring it into the world, but even more when we begin to love it. Our love provides that child with an identity, with a name and with an autonomous existence. If that is so, and if awareness of other people’s sufferings gains currency in our collective culture, then we may hope in our future.
I said ‘hope’, not just ‘be confident’, or ‘expect’. Hope is ber, and is a virtue. But beware, as to hope also means to promise. We normally call hope what we ask for, in the expectation that it may visit us. This is however, not true: hope is like a promise. We may hope, as human beings, in what we are able to promise. If we promise this solidarity towards other people’ suffering, on a reciprocal basis, the hoped-for future will already be implicit in our promise.