Our readings this weekend present us with two key messages. Firstly, in Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s healing of the deaf and dumb man is directly linked to Isaiah’s prophecy. Christ is the long awaited Messiah and so the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unsealed, and the lame will leap like a deer. These miracles are possible because Jesus is the Lord our God and he does all things well. Secondly, James (who elsewhere describes himself as a “servant of God”), is concerned with how we can live a genuine Christian life. He warns us that we should not measure the worth of others based solely on their appearance and thus treat them as we see fit; he says that we must beware of turning ourselves into “corrupt judges”. I am sure that we can all recognise this temptation to judge others.
When I reflected on these two messages I considered the way in which our society treats disabled people and how we so often fail to show them the love that Christ did, and then I was struck by the significance of this weekend. The Paralympics closing ceremony takes place this Sunday in Tokyo, 28 days after the Summer Olympics ended. These are the 16th Paralympics, a title which literally means, beside the Olympics. Channel 4 first broadcast the Paralympics in 2012 and has brought a fresh approach to the task, which has drawn larger audiences to their programmes and has positively changed perceptions of Paralympic sport and of disabled people in general. The broadcaster has received wide praise for its coverage and for the way in which the event has been advertised, challenging preconceptions. This year the achievements of Paralympians are especially poignant because of the impact of COVID, particularly on disabled people.
A phrase often used during the pandemic has been: “We are all in the same boat”; because the virus doesn’t discriminate between young and old, black and white, disabled and non-disabled. Unfortunately this phrase doesn’t tell the whole story, it certainly doesn’t describe the potential experience of a disabled person who contracts the virus. In 2020 people with physical disabilities were three times more likely to die after contracting COVID than those without disabilities, largely because of compound medical problems, social deprivation and age. This shocking statistic highlights the deep-rooted inequalities in our society and the fact that despite great advances in equality and inclusion in recent years there is still a long way to go.
The advertising campaign for this year’s Paralympics has been particularly memorable. The film graphically shows the physical sacrifices and extraordinary commitment required to become the best in your sport, these efforts are magnified for those for whom even getting in and out of bed in the first place can be a physical challenge. As the advert says: “To be a Paralympian there’s got to be something wrong with you”. It’s a clever play on words, highlighting both that there is something uncomfortable in the visibility of someone else’s disability, and that to put yourself through great physical suffering in pursuit of sporting achievement is perhaps a little mad.
In the advert wheelchair rugby player Kylie Grimes arrives at a café only to find that there is a stepped threshold that prevents her from entering. Ignored by staff she turns away in frustration, an elite athlete excluded from everyday activities. It’s an experience that many disabled people would recognise all too clearly. Wheelchair users often say that they feel that they have become invisible; that everyone they meet sees the wheelchair and not the person who sits within it and that people are embarrassed to engage with the person who is confined to the chair.
Pope Francis has spoken movingly about the challenges that face disabled people and reminds us that sooner or later frailty is part of everyone’s life, and yet disabled people continue to face rejection from the general public because they are perceived as less useful and less attractive. The Holy Father identifies this attitude as yet another manifestation of the ‘throwaway culture’ which is prevalent in our modern world. Even our fellow human beings are disposable it would seem and yet the Psalm reminds us that the Lord raises up those who are bowed down.
Writing in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis challenges us to decide every day whether to be Good Samaritans, or indifferent bystanders, to look on everyone that we meet with fresh eyes, to see beyond their frailties and to discover that person within, made in the image of God. We are called to treat everyone as our neighbour, to respect their dignity and to include them in our community. We may not be able to heal the infirmities of our neighbours as Christ did, but we can all be Good Samaritans, if we choose to be. The entrance antiphon reminds us that the Lord exercises right judgement, and we are called to do the same, to be true Christians in our thoughts and in our actions.