August 27, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

When federal law meets Christian responsibility

Cynthia DewesRecent attention to the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act brought back a flood of memories for us. The impact of this law came a bit too late to help our family, but we were still grateful that it happened.

To begin with, our brother-in-law, Dan, was completing a medical residency in the late 1950s when he contracted polio. Only a few people were given the polio vaccine at the time. He wound up in an iron lung and, eventually, used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He had planned on a career in internal medicine, but now found it necessary instead to become a researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

At the time, no public buildings, transportation or other aspects of life were friendly to those people dependent upon wheelchairs or challenged by other disabilities.

Nevertheless, Dan traveled on business, swung himself in and out of vehicles into his wheelchair, parked his hand-controlled car at service entrances of public buildings, rode the freight elevator upstairs, and found creative ways to go to the restroom. The humiliation and sheer physical demands of this situation must have been terrible for him.

Later, our son, Peter, was born with a congenital hearth defect. He didn’t walk until he had surgery at age 3, and then we were told not to let him cry because his heart couldn’t take the stress.

Naturally, he became pretty spoiled and was rather unpopular with his older brothers and sister. That is, until he began taking the blame every time I lined up the usual suspects for some crime or other. Pete wouldn’t be punished very severely, and I had to let the others go, guilty or not, when he said, “I did it!”

Like his brothers, Pete went to high school at the now-closed Latin School, located at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis. It was an older building on two floors with stairs everywhere. There was no accommodation for someone like Pete, who had to take his time changing classes from one floor to another. But his teachers all knew his limitations and never marked him tardy.

When Peter was a Boy Scout, he earned merit badges in subjects he could handle physically. When he decided to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, he chose to supervise the cleanup of woods around a mansion at Marian College in Indianapolis.

After college, when his employer wanted to change his group insurance plan, a prospective insurer refused to cover Peter because of his heart condition. So Pete’s employer turned down that bid and went with another company, which was more expensive for him.

When our son, Andy, was born with profound mental retardation, our Church family was ready to help as had the Latin School and Boy Scouts. If Andy got loud during Mass or parish events, people smiled fondly and even offered to take him outside. Pike Township grade school staff members, our neighbors and friends pitched in, too.

The kind of efforts made personally by Dan and Peter, and from the hearts of family, friends, teachers and employers for them and Andy, illustrate the Christian response to disability.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress, our country acknowledged this responsibility as well. Today, accommodations must be made everywhere so that people with handicaps may enjoy—as the rest of us can—what it is to be human.

For a particularly good account of the Church’s response to the Americans with Disabilities Act, read “Parishes Move from Accessible to Inclusive” in the August 2010 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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