How do you view those labeled “handicapped”?

 

I was part of the generation that grew up with Mr. Rogers. In his caring way, he taught us many things. Some videos now available on YouTube share his lesson in word and deed on how to view others, particularly those with disabilities.

I always enjoyed Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. From the opening song asking if I’d be his neighbor, to taking a trip to the Neighborhood of Make Believe , to just feeding the fish in the aquarium, the half-hour show was a nice respite out of the otherwise hectic world of a growing boy. Plus, there was family lore that Mr. Rogers gave my Dad’s youngest brother a ride when he was hitchhiking–which seemed exactly what Mr. Rogers would do if he saw someone needing a ride.

In an on-line campaign to make public television hip, PBS produced videos that songified some of their classic talent. My kids ask me to play the one of Bob Ross singing his motto: “I believe everyday’s a good day when you paint.” They also like the one of Mr. Rogers almost as much as I do.

In the video (above), there’s a line that jumped out at me. Mr. Rogers makes the observation:

Imagine every person that you see is someone different from every other person in the world.

No doubt this is something that we appreciate about ourselves. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think they are unique. But, when we begin to talk about “others”–whatever the classification, be it race, ethnicity, different religions, or capabilities/disabilities–we strip the individuals of their uniqueness. Instead, whatever group we’re discussing are lumped into the “other.” Again, Kierkegaard’s line that “when you define me, you deny me.”

Certainly, this is a concern with prenatal testing providing a diagnosis that tells you one thing about a developing fetus, that it has Down syndrome, but nothing else about its other multitude of characteristics–not even its hair or eye color. And, then, I ran across another video of Mr. Rogers that offered another perspective on how to view people, particularly those with disabilities.

In the video below, Mr. Rogers is being interviewed for the Archives of American Television by the Emmys. Mr. Rogers talks of a dedication ceremony in Toronto for a friend of his, Henri Nouwen. Mr. Rogers describes Nouwen as an extremely intelligent man, a Catholic priest, who taught at Harvard and other institutions of higher learning. But, Nouwen found his place being the pastor to a L’Arche Community, which are predominantly made up of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Mr. Rogers begins this story at the 12 minute mark:

 

Mr. Rogers’s description and observation of the L’Arche residents near the 14 minute mark moves him almost to tears:

These people are wonderful people. …

They help us to be who we are because they are so much themselves. …

Each one of us can be used in perfectly wonderful ways and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with what the world would call great talents.

This interview of Mr. Rogers reminded me of another (and final for this post) video.

When Mr. Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, to introduce his award, the producers played a clip of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood where he talks with a young boy named Jeff Erlanger. Erlanger had a tumor that paralyzed him, requiring him to use a motorized wheelchair. Mr. Rogers has Erlanger talk about his condition and comments on how proud Erlanger’s parents must be of him. They end by singing together  “It’s You I Like.” Then, as a surprise, the now adult Erlanger enters from Stage Left. Watching Mr. Rogers’ reaction speaks volumes for how he viewed those society labels as “handicapped” and how they should be greeted:

 

Perhaps none of this has anything to do with Down syndrome prenatal testing, the focus of this blog. But, as I said, I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Rogers, and I appreciate his wisdom of viewing each person as a unique individual, each with gifts, even if the world would not consider them a great talent, and how he greets a person with disabilities.

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  1. […] unique individuals. This is re-affirmed through observations like Mr. Rogers marveling that “every person you see is different from every other person in the world.” But, syngamy provides the biological evidence of the truth of this […]

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