I was asked my opinion on an issue that a local news outlet had posted. The article centered on the topics of physical accessibility, human dignity, and financial responsibility. Those subjects were offered in the context of the needs of one student with a medical condition. My introduction to the article was a big headline about a lawsuit with a primary visual being the offending building and a secondary, smaller, poorly composed image of a student that appeared to be harvested from a social media channel. The bias was immediately established.
Issues aside, the thing that smacked me in the face were the responses that people offered on the motives, needs, and realities of physical difference in our society. If a society is truly judged by how it cares for the least of its members, then this small society of opinions is doomed. Now, I know better than to ask a crowd a complex question, and while Malcom Gladwell takes pride in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I see crowds as inherently, generally, foolish.
I decided to take each response apart in terms of the value that it was seeking to support and found that my crowd was using the same logic that one might use when shopping for a used car. Cost was the main driver (this accessibility issue is the price of an elevator) and that cost was evaluated against a larger bet of value-over-time, just like car shopping. Imagine the questions that come to mind when shopping for a used car: “does Sally really need such a new car? Can she simply take the bus? It’s only got to get her through high school and high schoolers don’t take care of anything”. My favorite: “I didn’t have a car in high school, she doesn’t need one either”.
I considered each of the value statements that the opinions offered; thought of them in terms of Bethany. Bethany can take the bus. Bethany should use the stairs. I’m a whiner if I think Bethany should have an elevator; I should teach her to walk independently. Bethany should simply get used to functioning in society with her disability. It costs too much to support Bethany in our cash-strapped society. I added the last opinion but given the direction the crowd was going, it’s only a matter of time before we got there. People love Bethany but if they knew the annual cost to support her and if they amortized those cost over 10 years, their love may depreciate as quickly as the value of the used car they were considering buying.
The article spoke briefly of living with dignity, made a brave mention of the student wanting to “be like everyone else” but the author had already inflicted too much damage and the likelihood of these feeble markers carrying any credible influence was already shot. In short, the author unknowingly created a mob. We’re all like that author; we create mobs every day by evaluating life with the same value streams that we use to evaluate Coke or Pepsi, choose gas from Mobil or Speedway, buy expensive shoes or cheap ones. We assume that for a price, we can make things normal or we should get exactly what we pay for. We construct complete models of the future in our minds that rely on the assumption that we understand what others go through every day of their lives because we know someone “like that”. We soften it with statements like “we all carry silent burdens” and “pain is relative”. We make decisions based on what we know, not on what we believe. I too am guilty of this with my opinion on the article reflecting what I know AND what I believe:
I know of no braver individuals than those who live with disability. I know of no other species that has learned to live with the reality of their condition more than those who “can-not”. I know of no other people-group who deserves our attention more, not because of their need but because of our need to learn the lessons that they know.
I believe that we are all created equal. I believe that love shows no boundaries. I believe that there is more happening around us than we’re aware of. I believe that we are capable of great things that edify the disabled, prosper society, and solidify our values in actions if we put our minds and hearts towards those efforts. And lastly, I believe we have a long way to go.