How People With Disabilities Can Heal Us All

Would you take two minutes to look into these faces?

They are beautiful.

They are sincere.

They are kind, and they long to be seen.

They need to be seen.

Little Rahma settling into her new child-sized wheelchair. Photo by Matthew Willingham/Preemptive Love Coalition.

So here’s my question: why are so many of us uncomfortable around people with disabilities? Why do we avoid eye contact with them, avoid touch, even avoid being in the same room with them?

Is it a reminder of struggle or pain that we’d prefer to ignore? Or is it just about differences we aren’t used to, so we shy away? Maybe we’re afraid we’ll make a mistake or accidentally hurt them?

As a student, I worked summers at a pool teaching swim lessons, and I remember teaching several children with disabilities. I started off so nervous one might drown or pee in the pool (all the kids did…) or the other kids wouldn’t be comfortable around them.

Anmar flashing a grin for the camera just before swapping out his broken old wheelchair. Photo by Matthew Willingham/Preemptive Love Coalition.

After weeks of swimming together, two things stood out to me: first, if you spend enough time in the company of both “disabled” and “non-disabled” people, it becomes difficult to know which is which. Lines blur, and you just start to see people trying to learn how to swim at their own pace.

Second, those who haven’t spent much time around people with disabilities are often the most uncomfortable around them, some even seemed repulsed. This was especially true of parents with “normal” children.

Asma put on her best clothes in honor of this day, and now she has a brand new wheelchair thanks to you! Photo by Matthew Willingham/Preemptive Love Coalition.

That experience made me think the real reason we’re uncomfortable around people with disabilities is that they remind us of the ways we are disabled. Their struggle reminds us of our own.

I don’t think we’re uncomfortable around them because they’re different from us, I think we’re uncomfortable around them because, deep down, they remind us that we’re all basically the same.

We all have struggles, strengths, hopes, despair…and every last one of us needs to be seen. Struggles and all.

Abdul Rahman laughing at a joke from his brother (behind). Photo by Matthew Willingham/Preemptive Love Coalition.

Sure, some people can’t walk and most can. Some can’t see and most can. Some have a different genetic makeup that allows them to experience and process the world quite differently from the rest of us.

There’s no denying there are obvious disabilities some people battle every single day, but the key word here is “obvious.”  Many of the world’s disabilities are easily hidden. We can put on the costume, rehearse the lines, and walk out the door or open our laptop and play the role.

I believe this is exactly why we need beautiful people like the ones in these photos. We need to sit with them, see their struggle, and see them overcoming it. We need to see their dependence to be reminded of our own. We need to see their love and light and joy to live out our own. We need to see people gathering around them to care for them, even in the time of ISIS, a group alleged to have systematically exterminated children born with Down’s Syndrome.

Ahmed with his perfect little kid grin and his hat cocked back—such a sweet kid! Photo by Matthew Willingham/Preemptive Love Coalition.

Think of that great Helen Keller quote: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

We need to be reminded that it’s ok to struggle. There are people who will come alongside us, care for us, and love us with the preemptive love we all wake up and wait for every day.

So thank you to all of you who took a few minutes to really see these faces. You helped provide them with new wheelchairs and medication, but you went well beyond that. You acknowledged them. You saw difference and struggle, but you didn’t look away.

Thank you!