These days we take ramps and handicapped parking spaces for granted. However, such considerations for people with special needs are quite a flip-flop from what such people experienced in the early days of humanity. In the social crises at the dawn of humanity as envisioned by René Girard, when everybody was at everybody’s throat, the choice of the victim was usually arbitrary, almost like a lottery. It could be anyone. However, if any person in this melee of undifferentiation should stand out in any way, that person would be the most likely victim. The person who stood out might be the most talented; a scenario often repeated today. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy: A Doxology) Many mythological victim/deities were great musicians or poets. Another way a person might stand out is by being handicapped. René Girard points out that a predatory animal will spot the weakest member of a herd and go for that one and that the same holds true of a society in crisis. One need only think of the many lame victims such as Oedipus or deities like Odin with only one eye.
The flip-flop started as soon as the Church, inspired by Jesus’ healing ministry, had the resources to build facilities for the sick and disable. As far as I can tell, hospitals are a Christian invention. We are so used to infirmaries that we think nothing of Benedict’s provision for an infirmary in his Rule, but Benedict was an innovator in his time. The teaching and ministry of Jesus that involved reaching out to the weak, the people formerly rejected by society, had become the cornerstone of Benedict’s monastic vision that consideration should always be shown to the weak. Of course, Benedict meant far more than sick and handicapped people with this admonition, as Benedict well knew that we all experience weakness in many ways. I have discussed care of the sick and its ramifications at length in my book Tools for Peace.
Many years ago, when I was a seminarian taking CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), one of the chaplains, who was legally blind, gave a talk on issues involving handicaps. He helped us greatly in sensitizing us to how people in his position felt with being helped either too much or not enough. He was also very honest about himself and he admitted that being handicapped did not necessarily make him any more sensitive to other handicapped people than anybody else. As an example, he told us of how he recoiled when introduced to a person with a withered arm.
To this day, even those of us who care for others experience this kind of recoil when we encounter others who are a bit different, especially if the difference is grotesque. But our treatment of alleged nerds and celebrities shows us that a difference in conspicuous talent raises the same sort of dread. If we notice ourselves in this respect, we can experience a kinship with our brothers and sisters who made sacrificial victims and then deities out of the likes of Odin.