I don’t know when exactly it started happening, but people have been fixated on healing or curing me since I was a very young child. In a previous piece about Eddie Redmayne, I referenced a blog that accused Hollywood of perpetuating the idea that disability was something to be conquered rather than lived with. While I believe that “conquering” disability is an extremely prevalent notion, I do not think that Hollywood is the only element at the epicenter of this trend.
In my experience, the idea of “conquering”, banishing, or eradicating disability is very obvious within the context of religious healing. Please do not misconstrue the tone of this discussion: I mean no disrespect to people of faith; my father’s side of the family is devoutly Catholic. I am not anti-religion.
Some people speculate that I live a life of unmitigated suffering. This connects back to the idea of inspiration porn because when these assumptions are made, I’m applauded for the simplest acts of everyday life. Sometimes, presumptions like these are manifested through the conclusion that I need healing, saving, curing or fixing. I know that this sentiment does not come from a place of malice, so I do my best to be polite and appreciate the good intention. But sometimes, things go too far.
When I was sixteen, we had a substitute teacher in English class one day; all we did was watch a film. At the end of the period, I was waiting for the class to empty out so that I could leave easily when the sub came up to me and asked, “Are you in pain? Does your disability cause you pain?”
I was a bit taken aback, but I’d gotten variations of the question before. I was also only sixteen, so I wasn’t exactly skilled in the art of evasion. I told him that sometimes I had back pain and stiff muscles, but it was all pretty normal and it didn’t stop me from doing much.
He asked me if he could pray for me. I grew up going to Catholic Church every week until I was fourteen; I’ve gone through all of the religious sacramental rites of passage. I thought that this man would pray for me as part of his evening ritual – adding in good wishes for the girl in the wheelchair – so haltingly, I said “Sure, if you want.” What else was I supposed to say?
He proceeded to pull a Bible out of his briefcase, put his hand on my head (with a strong enough grip to hold it still) and start praying out loud for at least two minutes, begging the Lord Jesus to banish the pain and devil from my soul, to end my tormented suffering and bring me peace.
When he finally stopped, he looked up from his Bible and said, “How’s your pain now? On a scale of one to ten, if it was ten when we started talking, what is it at now?” This man actually believed he was an instantaneous healer.
I should mention that I went to a public high school, in case this scenario wasn’t already inappropriate enough.
Regardless of whatever belief system someone ascribes to, having a stranger lay a hand on your head, hold you still and pray for the devil to be banished from you is highly inappropriate. Unsolicited invasions of personal space are never acceptable. I wouldn’t even be comfortable with a priest doing such a thing.
Strangers on the street make the sign of the cross when they see me saying “God bless you,” as they pass. People offer me pamphlets on the bus, inviting me to all sorts of healing Masses. When I politely decline, they say, “But He can help you! Let the Lord help you!”
This bothers me on a lot of levels. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it is a gross intrusion – physically, emotionally and psychologically. I do not wear my belief system on my sleeve. While I’m aware of the good intention behind such sentiments, I cannot help but find it offensive – I do not appreciate strangers passing judgment on my quality of life, assuming on some level that I must be suffering and unhappy. Can I not be a person with a disability who is – for the most part – happy with her life? I’m healthy, I’m educated; I have a loving family and great friends. I don’t wake up every day and curse my situation. I have bad days, dark times, but so does everyone else. Everyone struggles. This is what makes us human.
My motto is, “God did not give me anything I cannot handle.” I do not need to be healed because I am not sick. I do not need to be cured because I am not dying. I do not need to be fixed because I am not broken. Life with cerebral palsy can be complicated, painful and exhausting. Some days I handle it better than others.
But this is my life. I don't want a cure or a magic fix. I DO want there to be less stairs, I DO want the winters to be less brutal, I DO want to be able to use the bathroom everywhere I go. I DO wish I could depend on people less, not to feel like I am left with no choice but to defend my personal privacy and dignity in a fight to the death. A “cure” is less important than any of the things on the aforementioned list of what I do genuinely want.
There will always be well-intentioned people wanting nothing more than for me to be cured or fixed. I think I should make it interesting: “You want to heal me? Sure, give it a try. But if it doesn’t work, there is a fifty dollar fee for false advertising.” This could turn into a very lucrative enterprise!
I want something to be understood: My life is not perfect. My disability gives me a set of external and internal challenges that I sometimes wish I didn’t have to contend with. But my disability has also shaped me into the woman that I am. Without it – my convictions, my worldview, my beliefs, my strength, my friends and my humour –everything that shapes my enduring sense of self would shift. Without my disability I would not be who I am. I like who I am, and I do not wish for a different reality in which I would be anything other than the person I know myself to be.
I will end with words from one of my favourite novels, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn't they always get up and dance off stage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray, all better now, hooray! If you are whole, you will argue: Why wouldn't they rejoice? Don't the poor miserable beggars all want to be like me? Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we'd like to get places quickly, and carry things in both of our hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you, or get The Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right.”
By Layla Guse Salah
DTN, Social Media Manager