Today I came across this quote by 19th-century politician Robert G. Ingersoll, and it did not agree with me.
“The superior man is the providence of the inferior. He is eyes for the blind, strength for the weak, and a shield for the defenseless. He stands erect by bending above the fallen. He rises by lifting others.”
On your first or second time through this quote, you might think, “Well that’s a nice saying…‘Eyes for the blind, shield for the defenseless’…I can dig that!” It does sound nice, protecting the weaker among us and offering yourself for service rather than glorification. Such extensions of the heart and soul are worthy—reaching oneself out to assist friends, family, or nameless strangers is one of the many beautiful opportunities our humanity offers.
After further examination, you may notice the inevitable associations that the quote encourages: similarities among “blind,” “weak,” “defenseless,” and “fallen” and a very bold line that separates “the superior” man from “his inferiors.” In this quote, there is no room for a superior man who cannot stand or lift others.
In literary analysis, we are sternly warned to avoid anachronism — using the sensibilities of the present to analyze texts from the past. So it is not sound for me to insist that Ingersoll be aware of the contemporary meanings of disability, meanings which denote something different from impairment or deficit. Today, many disabled people wear the term with pride, asserting that their disability is a unique (not tragic) characteristic. [There are certainly disabled people who DON’T wear the term with pride, but I won’t go there right now.]
I cannot expect Ingersoll to know this. I cannot demand that Ingersoll familiarize himself with Deaf culture, braille labelers, or power chairs. I cannot expect Ingersoll to understand how disabled people have reclaimed not only the word disability but other terms—like cripple, freak, and gimp—that were previously derogatory. I cannot expect him to be cognizant of the fun nicknames we’ve assigned one another (blink, blindie, blindo – forgive me for only knowing the blind ones!). I can’t expect Ingersoll to understand the positivity and support of connecting with disabled people all across the world, the glow that comes from realizing that others have struggled with the same negative attitudes from the outside.
Really, when I stop to think about it, I shouldn’t be angry with Ingersoll at all. His attitude is relatively common for the 19th century. Think about Tiny Tim and Oliver Twist, two little “unfortunates” born of Victorian sentimentality. Perhaps one could loosely say that the 1800s finally gave public voice to the pervasive sympathy for the “inferiors” among us.
What troubles me is that this attitude, more than 100 years old, still exists across the world. Even among organizations that claim to have the best interests of disabled people in mind, there exists a noxious and saccharine pity for “those poor dears” with disabilities. Friends who work with the disabled have told me how, when they share their job description with others, they are hailed as angels who work with angels—because, frankly, you’d have to be a saint to want to work with “those people.”
It is time to lay these age-old attitudes to rest. It is no longer acceptable to believe that disabled people’s lives are universally more bereft, more miserable, and more painful than the lives of nondisabled people. I can’t knock with terrifying confidence on Ingersoll’s door, demand admittance, and deliver my opinion with ardor—but I can wield my pen and keys in opposition.
Philip Sydney once wrote in defense of Poetry. I’m going to write in defense of Disability. Let us put aside the well-used and destructive metaphor of disability as stigma. The disabled have not been hand-marked for your charity, pity, or scorn because they are disabled. If you want to extend empathy, extend it for the sake of our shared experience of life on this planet.
Amend Ingersoll’s quote; widen its parameters. Ability is not an absolute, and superiority is not guaranteed.