As the parent of a teenager with severe autism, I have often thought of what it must be like for these families, fleeing war-torn countries with the added stresses and responsibilities of a child with significant needs. Imagine caring for a child with frequent toilet accidents without access to running water. Or transporting a child in a wheelchair across miles of rough terrain. Think of trying to feed a child with life-threatening food allergies when there is not even enough food to survive. I always assumed that people with disabilities would be given priority treatment. These bans show that the opposite is true.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 15 percent of any population will be persons with disabilities, with potentially higher proportions among populations that have fled war, persecution or natural disaster. Refugee camps, which operate under deplorable conditions, are not adequately addressing or serving the needs of people with disabilities.
According to Human Rights Watch, only two of 15 camps in Greece have accessible toilets. In one case, a woman who uses a wheelchair was not able to take a shower for a month. With bans on children with disabilities from seemingly progressive countries and only war zones to go home to, these families are trapped in an unbearable situation.
Ironically, the US doesn’t discriminate against refugees with disabilities, but with their proposed ban on people traveling from certain Muslim countries it makes the options for families from these countries who have a child with a disability even more slim.
These bans make the assumption that people with disabilities have nothing to contribute to society, that they are nothing but a drain on health care system and society resources. I am ashamed to admit that I used to feel this way myself.
When my son was diagnosed with autism at age three, I saw nothing but despair in his future, and my own. What would he be other than a drain on society, what would his value be if he couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t speak, couldn’t live independently?
Thankfully, I have since realized just how incredibly valuable his life is and how much he has given back already.
People with disabilities have made as many valuable contributions to our society as any other group. Temple Grandin, perhaps the world’s most famous person with autism, has written many books about autism, and is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. In 2010 she was named by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world, under the “Heroes” category. She has improved the lives of countless children by the advice she has shared through her books and lectures.
Would anyone question Stephen Hawking’s contribution to society? In spite of being wheelchair bound and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication, Hawking has provided powerful insights into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, black holes and the origins of the universe. He balances his family life (he has three children and three grandchildren) with prolific writing and lectures.
Even my own son has positively influenced an amazing number of people and changed lives and careers. In his 15 years, hundreds of therapists, teachers, doctors, respite workers and aides have worked with him, providing employment for a veritable village of highly skilled positions. One of the people who took him on pony rides when she was a teenager discovered that she loved working with people with disabilities so much that she decided to start her own equine assisted therapy organization.
Two of the young women who worked with him in our home while he was younger confided in me that they never thought they wanted children until working with our family. There is a tendency for people looking in from the outside to see the lives of those with special needs as sad and tragic, whereas they are often so full of joy and deep meaning.
Whether bringing their own unique viewpoint to improve and enrich our world, by providing a need for career pathways and skilled employment, by fostering a desire to help and nurture, or by giving the precious gift of seeing what really matters in life, people with even the most severe disabilities can have powerful and profound influences. I think back to that sad, visionless person I was when my son was young, and I realize how much he has taught me about life and love and the value of a life that is different.
We need policy changes and policy makers who understand that people with disabilities are inherently valuable human beings and deserve asylum as much if not more so than anyone else. There may be increased monetary costs but it is a cost that is repaid many times over on a human level. As a society, we need to decide what is more necessary and better reflects our values – caring for those in need or turning our backs on those who can enrich our lives.