This piece was written at the request of the Archbishop, to be read in churches in Malta for the International Day for People with Disabilities in December 2013.
A Letter from a disabled person representing Breaking Limits NGO to the community
Today is the International Day for People with Disabilities, and we as members of Breaking Limits, which is a non governmental organisation would like to share with you some of our thoughts about having an impairment and what it really means to us.
Malta is a place where we as people with disabilities are cherished by our families. We are taken care of and loved. This is very important but there are other areas that we have to deal with because of our impairments that perhaps have not been considered, which is why we would like to take this opportunity to let you know our thoughts.
The overwhelming feeling that we get from society as a whole is that non-disabled people think we are people who need to be pitied, that we are tragic individuals who require lots of help and acts of charity in order to survive. We have to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth – people with disabilities take part in many activities that even non-disabled people do not take the opportunity to do.
Members of Breaking Limits have been involved in horse-back riding, scuba diving, canoeing, sailing, rock climbing, gliding and hand cycling. Wheelchair sports that we take part in include handball, basket ball, rugby and road racing. We have the ability to graduate from university as lawyers, accountants and social policy experts. We hold down regular jobs in banks, IT companies, posts with the MFSA and the university. We drive cars.
We know that we in Breaking Limits are the lucky ones… the ones who have been able to reach our full potential despite the hurdles that are placed in our way. There are of course people whose impairments are a lot more severe than our own, who do require more attention, more support to be able to live an active life, but this does not mean that they need to be pitied. What most people with disabilities want, more than anything else, is to be accepted on the same footing as our non-disabled friends and acquaintances. We have the same feelings of desire, we have the same ambitions as non-disabled people, the only difference is that we need to try harder to achieve those ambitions. This may be because our parents are scared to let us try something new, or because employers are afraid that it will be too much of a risk to employ us. These reactions may be very understandable but the affect is the same, we are prevented from reaching our full potential due to a lack of appreciation of our need to be viewed as just another person, and not a person who is cursed with a disability.
Having an impairment does not mean the person’s quality of life is not worth living, people with disabilities have a whole range of abilities that they are willing and able to contribute to society with, if given a chance to do so. In a lot of cases if the person with a disability was given the appropriate levels of services or the correct equipment their quest for an independent life would be easy to achieve. Please do not pity us for our inability to be able to walk, or see, or hear, or communicate easily, instead see the things that we are able to do and encourage us and support us to do these things to the best of our abilities. Most of us are not looking for miracle cures, we are comfortable with our lives, which is why pity is such an inappropriate response from society to our situation. If you are looking for something to pray for in relation to people with disabilities perhaps it is more fitting to pray for the strength to cope with the barriers we face and the ability to overcome them, rather than deliverance from the impairments we have. We are no angels…. we have the same ability to do wrong things as the rest of society, we make our own decisions and we live by them, so please don’t be afraid to criticise when we do something that offends you, again we want to be treated on a par with the rest of society.
Malta has come a long way with respect to the disability sector in the last thirty years, from being hidden away because we brought shame on our families to being able to get an education and a job. There are many people in society who have experience of disability – parents, siblings, educators, employers, health professionals and people with disability themselves. There are many NGOs whose aim is to improve rights and inclusion, who offer services and provide support. One of the problems that the disability sector faces is the fact that there are so many interested groups all working for their own goals to improve the situation for their own members. Resources are finite, we understand that, so it would be a good step forward if these groups could come together and work to agree on the main areas that need to be addressed and then work together in achieving those aims. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect is the way in the last year that disability is being spoken about more in the newspapers and on the television. It is spoken about in offices and in government departments. What we in Breaking Limits hope for is that in the coming year these people who have experience of disability will be able to work together to bring about real change in the lives of people with disabilities.
The biggest change we could hope for however comes not from additional government funding or increased service provision but from a change in attitude from the people in Malta. We want to be seen as people who have the same ambitions and desires as anyone else, we do not want to be pitied, we want to be recognised as a group of people who have a lot to offer society. We know that sometimes we will need help or assistance to do this but it is something that we can do and we would like to be given the support and the opportunity to do. We may have limitations but we live lives that are full of good experiences and joyful moments, we have meaningful relationships and we are able to a whole lot more than you could imagine if given the chance. So please, when you see a person with disability in the street, do not stare at him or her, or cross over the road to avoid him or her, we are probably doing exactly the same thing in the street as you are. If you offer us assistance and we turn you down, please don’t be offended, we, like you, sometimes prefer to be independent, we can guarantee that if we do need help, you will not be turned down and we will be thankful for your help if it is offered. If the people of Malta are prepared to treat people with disabilities in the same way as their non-disabled friends the island will be a much happier place for people with disability to live in. Your actions and reactions are important to the ability of people with disabilities to be able to live their lives to their full potential. So please if you take only one thing from this letter it would be that you understand that we have all sorts of abilities that we would like to be able to offer society, and we would love it if you would support us in doing this because we have the right to try, not because we are ‘miskina’ who should be pitied.
Thank you for listening, we appreciate your time.