A NATION OF HANDICAPPED © David Watts 28/03/2010

To call Canadians “A Nation of Handicapped” may sound a first like an insult. Though we’re supposed to now be more enlightened in our use of the term, a prejudice persists.

After our highly successful hosting of the 2010 Para-Olympic Games, we may prefer to say we’re a nation that’s “friendly to the disabled” or “handicap-sensitive.”

But that won’t wash. It’s too glib and patronizing. It’s saying a handicap is somebody else’s problem and that we are altruistic people who like to help.

Truth is, we like to help because we’re helping ourselves. To increase participation in the life of state and society is good for us all.

In encouraging that, we’re not being do-gooders or benevolent. We’re simply showing enlightened self-interest. That’s because we’re all handicapped in some respects.

International Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, deaf from age eleven, points this out:

“No matter who or what you are, there are some things you can’t do. If you have the body for a prize fighter, you can’t be a ballerina.”

Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a supermodel on one hand or a super-mathematician like Stephen Hawking, on the other. When an interviewer asked Hawking how hard it was to be in an immobile body, he replied “Not at all. I have exactly what I need to my job: to think.”

So what we’re talking about in “handicap” is not catering to weaknesses, but developing strengths and specialties. That’s what a person does who builds strong arms to offset missing legs, or trains the feet to function as hands.

That’s what Evelyn Glennie did. In learning to experience sound through her whole body, she became a fine tuned musical instrument and musician. “If I were offered to have my normal hearing restored, Glennie says, “I wouldn’t take it. Music is much richer this way.”

Our response to the so-called “handicapped” or differently-abled is often one of two extremes: to want to help, on one hand, or to make them heroes, on the other.

Both are self-indulgent rather than self-motivating. What we and all human beings need is ultimately not help or hero worship but affirming of our humanity and a chance to share it.

In this way Canadians are a nation of handicapped and pro-handicapped. We demonstrated this in an early provision of accessible public services and facilities for the differently abled.

We illustrate it in the integration of special needs in the mainstream of our education system.

We show it in one of our major events, the annual Marathon of Hope, established by one-legged runner Terry Fox, and the continuing work of Man in Motion Rick Hansen.

We proved it in 1993 in the biggest political upset in our history, when a governing party was reduced from two hundred to two seats when it ran an attack ad focusing on a handicap of the Opposition Leader. Canadians responded loud and clear, “That’s not us. It’s unacceptable.”

And we showed it supremely at the Para-Olympics: in the facilities, volunteers, hospitality and an attitude of support that expressed in cheering for all participants of all countries.

This is what it means to be Canadian: a spirit of which we can be proud.

Other nations have had handicapped heroes, such as Britain’s Lord Nelson, whose one-armed, one eyed statue stands atop a pillar in Trafalgar Square.

Canada’s are different. The handicapped figures we celebrate are not about being special but examples of inclusion: of a participation that is becoming increasingly ordinary.

Canadians’ response to handicaps is an outgrowth of our pluralism: a pluralism that includes multiple languages and cultures, and can include the religious symbols of another culture as part of the uniform of a member of our national police force.

It is an inclusiveness that extends health care and other aspects of a social safety net on the basis of need and not of personal ability to pay.

It is a spirit that does not leave support of the arts to private philanthropy but actively supports public festivals, funds artists through a peer review system, and extends up to the Governor General, in her annual sponsorship of a forum entitled “Art Matters.”

Canadians accept our differences. In doing so, we value connections that bring us together: the meeting place where the differences, differing abilities or handicaps—call them what you will—makes life incredibly richer.

In the Canadian fur trade, a man over five feet tall was a misfit as a voyageur. Canoes were designed for small men and large baggage. That didn’t stop bigger men from getting ahead.

The difference between a talent and a handicap is simply one of attitude: what we do with it.

Those who have lost an arm or a leg often report the phenomenon of a phantom limb with sensations of heat, cold, pain, pressure, even of movement, from something no longer there.

The limb still exists in the mind, even when there is nothing physical for it to motor.

That is what para-olympic athletes do. Their ski poles, skates, wheelchairs and prostheses become integral parts of their mental bodies, serving the intentions of the mind.

The difference between a para and an able-bodied Olympiad is not as great as between an athlete or musician who trains the body and an individual who is resigned to limitations.

This is like the experience/presence of Canada in the body of the nations of the world. In many ways we lack specific characteristics that define many of the world’s nation states.

And we have a boundless spirit and presence that enables us to connect with Earth’s peoples.

Our phantom limbs extend world wide to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Oceana, where they are not phantom at all, but very much embodied in the lives of other peoples.

To say Canadians are different in accepting differences is missing the point. Humanity manifests in many streams, and most of these are represented in Canada or touched by it.

Canadians are blessed in having space and time to recognize and incorporate these differences in a mural of global resonance and splendour.

Canada is a nation of differently abled, of handicapped, that highlights a shared wholeness. Vive les differences et vive l’unité!