How much humanity is enough? or, The First Principle and Me

How human do I have to be to counteract the fact that, as my partner and I put it, “I don’t walk so good.” How do we measure the humanity I have or the humanity I’m lacking?

You might be puzzled now, wondering how a disability, a difference in function could diminish my humanity. I’m here to tell you that even though I know it doesn’t, I, and many people like me, live every day in the face of twisted narratives that say that a disabled life isn’t worth much or isn’t worth living. What’s the result of twisted narratives like those?

Suffer the Little Children is a documentary that exposes the inhumane conditions at Pennhurst, a school and hospital in Spring City, Pennsylvania. The images are graphic and disturbing. The journalist asks the doctor about practices that injure the dignity of patients. At times, the doctor explains that lowering patients’ dignity is one way to control them. If you are disabled and aware, I am giving you specific permission not to watch this film.

Wait, though. Here’s an important thing for everyone who wants to know why I am writing about dehumanization. This film was made in 1986. I was in eighth grade. And I am still fighting to be understood as a human, even though I use a scooter and even though my eyes don’t look in the same place at the same time. My friends, my partner, others who know me will tell you that even on a simple occasion, like visiting a restaurant, people will talk about me as though I am not there, asking people around me where I want to sit and what I want to eat.

Of course, people who do this usually mean no harm, but I want us to stop and consider that, even so, they are actually doing harm because it is in those tiny moments that you are treated like a person and that you experience being a person.

I take some comfort in being a Unitarian Universalist, being part of a faith and ethics movement that holds as the first principle that it promotes, the following:

“The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Even me, the person having a unique experience of my body, with mobility aids, with the support of my community, both to lead them and to be supported.

Yet, there is a gap between the aspiration of inclusion in Beloved Community and the lived experience. Chancels are not accessible. Buildings lack elevators and ramps. Disability is often used as a metaphor for negative experiences or less-than status.

This leaves me concerned as the First Principle is up for revision at General Assembly in New Orleans this summer. The First Principle Project proposes that the text of the First Principle be changed to read,

“The inherent worth and dignity of every being.”

I can’t say yes to this. I can’t say that we are ready as a movement to stop thinking in terms of how every single person, every single kind of person has inherent (built-in, part of their nature) worth (value) and dignity (the right to self-possession). We don’t practice this, with occasional lapses. We are still in the process of framing the practices of radical inclusion and welcome as part of who we are. And, someone will say to me, “But, Theresa, I can worry about more than one thing at a time. I can worry about those whose dignity is sacrificed for the sake of expediency.”

I’m so tired. I’m tired easy answers in pluralist practice that don’t show any evidence of fruit. If you are practicing that wide, generous inclusion, then, sure, maybe you are ready to add things like shrews, and finches, and black fantail fish with googly eyes, but how many horrific movies that show children suffering because they are unwanted and disabled are going to be helpful to expand your consciousness?

I’m asking you not to change the First Principle to, “being” because we have not yet fulfilled the mandate of our moral imperative when it comes to people. We are not yet mostly reliable for a universal welcome that respects and includes the differences represented by disabilities.

To borrow a line from Hamilton, “Not yet.”

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