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Letter to Pope Francis: My Disability Is Not for You to Objectify

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Over the weekend, I came across a post written by my friend David Perry regarding a tweet Pope Francis shared that mentioned disability.  The Pope released a key paper that discussed love, marriage and family on Friday, April 8th.  Within the document, there are several mentions of disability, and what I have read of these excerpts were problematic in many regards.  The manner in which disability is referenced in the tweet and within the document disturbed me to the point that I voiced my concerns on social media, and a friend of mine suggested that I write a letter to the Pope about my stance and what I would like the Pope to understand about disability.  

It took about 30 minutes to draft such a letter.  I referenced the tweet specifically because it had over 9.000 retweets and over 24,000 likes in a matter of days; such a wide reach demonstrates the notability Pope Francis has and how his words possesses great power to influence the way we see each other – in this case, the way disability is perceived within and outside of the family unit.  

Without further ado, here is my letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis:

 

Dear Your Holiness,  

Before I begin, I do want to state that I am not Catholic; I was raised in a Baptist home by my Grandmother, and I am currently non-denominational.  My faith has evolved into having a spiritual connection to God, and am very adamant about my relationship with God by prayer and reading devotionals daily.  

Pope Francis, I am a proud disabled Christian, and I wanted to share with you my thoughts pertaining to the tweet you shared on Saturday, April 9th.  

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Pope Francis, from your demeanor, you seem to be a very caring man, and have displayed a profound respect for people from all walks of life, including disabled people.  I have seen you show great affection to disabled people, young and old, Black or white – something that as someone on the outside of Catholicism, I have not seen much of.  Your encounters feel very genuine, and something that I wish were seen from many leaders within Christianity.  However, your tweet struck me sharply because you took a stance that could potentially harm disabled people in general, and particularly disabled Christians who participate in congregations that may have the wrong ideals about what disability is and how to relate to disabled parishioners.  

Pope Francis, my disability is not a gift for my family to learn from – my family should love me regardless of how God made me.  My disability is not an obstacle to be overcame by my family; they are not the disabled one – I am.  It is me who will have to overcome the challenges of living with a disability in an ableist society.  It is me who has the task of balancing three marginalized identities – being Black, disabled, and a woman.  My family will never fully understand what it is like to have teachers, medical professionals, and strangers prejudge their existence in the same regard my abilities, talents, or worthiness are misjudged because I am in a wheelchair due to a brittle bone condition (Osteogenesis Imperfecta).  In our society, people who are able-bodied and neurotypical are considered the “standard” – the world is built for them, and they can easily navigate a society without any barriers.  That is a luxury I do not have, Pope Francis.  

Your statement, though seemingly innocent, is in fact harmful because it perpetuates that disabled lives should be pitied, and that disabled people are a burden to champion from.  (To view disability as a “gift” is not a bad view; however, for you to have to state it as such implies that you are aware that it is not always viewed that way by society.)

My disability is only considered a burden because this society fails to treat and view me as a full human being; the exclusionary actions are purposefully because I am not “the standard.”  This exclusionary practice is greatly experienced within religious settings, as many disabled people are constantly bombarded with statements from churchgoers who seek to “pray for us” because we are disabled.  I do not want anyone to pray my disability away – if God wanted me as the “standard,” I would have been born able-bodied.  God had other plans for my existence, and as Psalm 139:14 (NIV) states, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” in His image.  His image being that of God’s – not man, who only focuses on what makes me different and ostracizes me because of it.  

Pope Francis, if you ardently believe it is imperative to discuss disability, there are many empowering stances you can take that will be welcomed by disabled advocates like myself.  The first being that disabled lives matter – abortion should not be the first suggestion doctors give to parents who find out that their unborn child is not “the standard.”  Our lives are not tragedies – The Word tells us this when Jesus remarks in John 9:3 (NT), “Neither this man or his parents sinned.  Instead, he was born blind so that God could show what he can do for him.”  

You could also make the proclamation that disabled people from all around the world have a right to be protected from acts of violence and terror that puts our lives in grave danger.  Some of those acts of violence are committed by the very people you are referencing – the family, as filicide and sympathy for the perpetrators are sadly the reality seen.  Along those same lines, become an ally about what disabled people like myself fight for each day – equal access and rights to education, employment, healthcare, inclusion, representation, and validation that our lives are worthy and our personhood are respected.  Pope Francis, a man of your prestige who uttered such truths about the lives of disabled people could greatly impact the way disabled people are treated and viewed in their homes, within the church, and in the communities we live in.

As a disabled Christian, I was disappointed in the stance you took in your tweet.  Your image and leadership has not only energized Catholics, but Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers alike.  The great compassion and regard you have about human life and human worth are truly admirable, but if you are going to discuss disability, reach out to those of us who live this life everyday – like me, and the one billion disabled people who occupy this planet.  

Pope Francis, I ardently believe that you are the kind of man and leader who would listen to the people, especially those of us who are overlooked and oppressed.  I hope that this letter creates a need for you to learn about the disabled experience in order to project a more accurate message about how Catholics, Christians, and the broader society can begin to treat us the way the Bible declares, “love each other as I have loved you,” John 15:12 (NIV).  

Sincerely,
Vilissa, a proud disabled woman and Christian

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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