Following Pope Francis’ Lead: Authentic Inclusion for Disabled People

For those of us living with disability or chronic illness, Christ’s wounds are a remarkable reminder that we, too, bear the image of God. Yet the inclusion of people with disabilities in society – and even in the life of the Church – has hardly been historically constant. In the fifth century, for instance, Augustine was at pains to confirm to his readers that people with bodies we might now identify as disabled were even human:

At Hippo-Diarrhytus there is a man whose hands are crescent-shaped, and have only two fingers each, and his feet similarly formed. If there were a race like him, it would be added to the history of the curious and wonderful. Shall we therefore deny that this man is descended from that one man who was first created?…Some years ago, quite within my own memory, there was a man born in the East, double in his upper, but single in his lower half – having two heads, two chests, four hands, but one body and two feet like an ordinary man; and he lived so long that many had an opportunity of seeing him. But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents? As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course…unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all. [City of God, XVI.8]

Augustine’s theological purpose here – to confirm that all rumored monstrous races in fact trace their lineages to Adam – is of less interest to the modern reader than the sociological implications of his treatment of the two people he mentions. While he is right to affirm the humanity of people whose bodies differ from the ‘usual course,’ it is questionable how thoroughly their human dignity could have been affirmed so long as they were viewed as objects of curiosity and fascination. The inclusion of people with disabilities in the life of the community as dignified members is therefore only one part of Christian social obligation; the second part is hinted at by the melancholy note Augustine strikes when he mentions the short life of the second man discussed – that is, for genuine inclusion to take place, people with disabilities must also have adequate care.

On both of these levels, Pope Francis is shaping up to be an extraordinarily exemplary figure. Again and again, Pope Francis has placed just the right amount of emphasis on his willingness to reach out physically – as Christ did – to those experiencing illness or other forms of disability. This gesture of touch embodies visually what communities should undertake in a more general sense; that is, the welcoming of persons at all levels of physical ability into the fold of social life. But Pope Francis’ embrace of people with disabilities doesn’t end at sympathy and pathos. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.

The weight of the expectation that states should ensue that all citizens have healthcare shouldn’t be underestimated. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis appears to be calling for universal healthcare access – which would benefit none more than people with disabilities.

After all, employer-based healthcare approaches are unfavorable to people with disabilities, as they engage in part-time work at higher rates than people without disabilities and also experience unemployment at higher rates than their non-disabled counterparts. It should therefore come as no surprise that people with disabilities are also particularly likely to suffer the effects of poverty, with over 1 in 5 disabled people in the United States currently living under the federal poverty line. Without the steady employment necessary to benefit from employer-based healthcare or the means to purchase their own, people with disabilities in the United States often rely on a piecemeal set of benefits programs which, while well-intentioned, do not amount to universal, free-upon-delivery care.

It may at first seem curious, given the specific and often unique needs of people with disabilities, that Pope Francis has not addressed this population directly with any regularity; yet by repeatedly addressing the exclusive nature of economies that produce inequality and poverty, he has nonetheless addressed the structural weaknesses that result in the ongoing suffering and isolation of many people with disabilities. It will always be incumbent upon the Church to include all members in her corporate life, but for that inclusion to bear its fullest fruits, people with disabilities also require the support of the broader institutions of society. Pope Francis’ approach therefore seems especially primed to serve as an ongoing example of inclusion and embrace, underpinned by a serious commitment to policies – like universal healthcare – that clear the way for the authentic inclusion of people with disabilities in the lives of their communities.