Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Disabled and Forgotten

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

February 14, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

Attending a Special Olympics event in Africa – like the one for young children I attended in Lilongwe, Malawi – is very much like attending a similar event in America. There is a mix of abled and disabled children, designed to encourage an inclusive experience. The intellectually disabled children have grown close to the coaches, who both affirm and challenge them. Parents seem pleased with the social and physical progress their children have made, and the children themselves often find abilities that no one suspected. For the intellectually disabled, sports and play have tremendous value. 

But outside this wonderful event here in Africa, the cloud of stigma lies heavy. Tribal elders and others often tell parents that their children are worthless and a waste of scarce resources. One of the words for the intellectually disabled in the local language translates to “evil beings.” Other terms are hardly less disparaging. A common local belief holds that parents of the intellectually disabled have stolen the soul of their own child through witchcraft, then exchanged it to gain wealth. When a disabled child is born, fathers often leave the home, blaming the mother’s lineage for the family’s shame.

These beliefs are not universal in Africa; they vary greatly by region, tribe and person.  And in the United States, of course, we still struggle with stigma against the intellectually disabled. But this is a particular problem in the developing world, where intellectual disability is often equated with evil spiritual forces. It makes people with intellectual disabilities the most vulnerable of the world’s vulnerable – often subjected to brutality or rape. When these rapes happen, the police or even their families often do not believe the victims. 

This group is not only disadvantaged, it is often forgotten. The statistics collected by governments and international agencies on health and education often do not include them, making their challenges largely invisible. This is one area where the advance of human rights would benefit greatly from the collection of good data.  

But focusing on this group in development also requires us to examine our philosophic assumptions. In our natural concern for measurable results, we judge development programs are by their efficiency in producing economic outcomes. This, however, can easily become utilitarianism – the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number.  And under this doctrine, the most vulnerable can be ignored, even disdained. 

In our capacities as governments, development organizations, and individuals, putting people with intellectual disabilities at the center of our concern represents a different philosophical and moral belief. It affirms that every human community is a continuum of ability and disability, often varying across our lives. A just society cares for everyone – including and especially the vulnerable – because human dignity does not vary by ability. 

Interestingly, this doctrine of dignity does have good, practical effects on societies that hold it. This belief filters down into legal systems, health systems, and education systems, making all of them more inclusive and effective. When you reach the most vulnerable, you can reach everyone. That is the message of Special Olympics, reinforced by the teaching of faith. Everyone matters to God – and should matter to us.   

-  Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”