BY LISA ANN YU
What were your expectations when you arrived at UC Berkeley as a new student? I expected hard classes, dirty buildings, overpriced books, and high crime rates. Sadly, most of those expectations have been met. I did not expect, however, to see so many disabled students: the girl in my statistics class who rolled in on a wheelchair, the guy with a walking stick who accidentally hit people’s feet in front of him, the girl with her guide dog who almost stepped into a busy street, and the guy on the shuttle who spoke very slowly and kept randomly talking to me.
My second semester at Berkeley, I applied to scribe for a blind student who needed help with math and chemistry because I had a little extra time on my hands and wanted to have an income. When the student asked for an interview, I wearily went to meet him, believing it would be a long and difficult conversation. I expected Newton to be in a wheelchair, assuming that was the easiest mode of transportation for someone who could not see. I expected him to be slow, having only been accepted to Berkeley because he was a “diversity student.” I expected him to be annoying and take advantage of everyone, knowing people felt sorry for him. Instead, I found him to be as normal as any Cal student (which is admittedly not saying much). He joked with me about how dorm food sucks and how I lived in the nerdy dorms (yes, I lived in Foothill). I was humbled as I realized I had forgotten that a disabled person was still a person. Only Newton’s eyes were literally broken, as they “did not function as they should,” yet I wrongly assumed his mind was also broken, and he would be extremely limited in all abilities.
A year later, I learned brokenness reaches far beyond broken bodies or minds after leading a Bible study for the very first time. The hour flew by so fast, and we covered almost no ground and only succeeded in confusing our fellow Bible study mates. Worse, I felt like there was a disconnect between my mind and my mouth, and I could not express anything in a way that was understandable to others. I mentally attacked myself, believing I was worthless and would never be used by God to reach others, would never become a leader within my ministry, and would never be taken as more than a joke or space-filler. The disabled people I met were literally broken, as their eyes did not see as they should, their legs did not move as they should, and their minds did not function as they should. But I felt socially broken, disabled in a way no one would suspect upon first meeting me. I realized I was broken in so many other ways, some of which were inherently displeasing to God and some of which were not. I am not only not able to say exactly what I mean, but I also do not love unconditionally, do not serve those around me with a joyful heart, do not rejoice with others when they acquire things I desire, and do not withhold judgment upon first meeting an individual. I may not wear my brokenness on my sleeve like a disabled person might, but I am still broken. And I realized that everyone is broken, no matter how polished his or her life may look on the outside.
In the week after that Bible study, I stumbled across 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 while reading a friend’s testimony, a testimony I had asked for over two months before but had only received then, when I most needed to hear it. Paul pleads for the “thorn in his flesh” (we don’t know what this was, but some possibilities offered by scholars include epilepsy, depression, carnal temptation, persecution, or remembrance of his pasti) to be removed. Jesus denied his request, but gave Paul an even greater gift: the reminder that “[His] grace is sufficient for you, for [His] power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, Paul is able to say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I was full of weaknesses. But that passage reminded me that God uses my weaknesses as a backdrop against which His perfect power can be more clearly displayed. Just as people are so in awe of the disabled who function “normally,” they should also be in awe of my God when I function the way I was made to work, despite the broken condition of my heart. It is when I am broken that God’s power is shown most clearly, and I can therefore be content with the person God made me to be, and even boast in my inherent weaknesses.
Recognizing my brokenness (inability to function the way I was designed) should make me broken (contrite, sorrowful, or subdued). God is “near to the brokenhearted,”ii not because I am at my worst when I am broken, but because I best understand the dichotomy between who I am and who He has made me to be when I am broken. A day is coming in which God will completely heal the brokenness in my heart and I will function the way I was created to, as I live in perfect communion with Him without guilt or jealousy or pain.
What does this mean for the disabled community living among us at Berkeley? Although they are broken on the outside, they share the same inner brokenness all humans have, namely that of falling short of who they were created to be. They also have the same needs and longings all humans have, the need to be known, loved, and understood, and we should treat them accordingly. Focusing only on their disability, which makes them different from able-bodied people, while ignoring their personality, feelings, and interests is dehumanizing. Paul Isaacs, a nationally acclaimed speaker with autism, said, “I do have disability…but I am a human being first and foremost. And for someone to be seen as person equal to everyone else is a basic human right.”iii
However, treating the disabled exactly like able-bodied people is also inappropriate. My friend Josh who has cerebral palsy told me I have the privilege of being the hands and feet of Jesus as I serve him by helping him fill his water bottle or holding the door for him. I laughed when he told me that, but his comment changed my perspective on my interactions with the disabled. The Church is also called the body of Christ,iv and as “stronger” parts of any body help the “weaker” parts in order to help the whole body function better, so should the able-bodied serve the physically and mentally impaired to help the whole body perform optimally. Furthermore, Jesus came to earth to serve humanity,v primarily by taking the punishment we deserved for displeasing God, but also by feeding the hungry and healing the sick. I have the opportunity to be like Jesus to those around me, including the disabled, by serving them tangibly, even if simply in small ways. However, the greatest way to serve someone is to introduce him or her to Jesus, who alone can fix the primary problem of a broken heart.vi
In addition to an opportunity to serve, the disabled also offer a constant reminder that God can – and does – use broken people. Why are people so in awe of Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic who paints with her mouth? Or Ludwig van Beethoven, a deaf composer? Or John Nash, a renowned mathematician with schizophrenia? Isn’t it because we see their disabilities as limitations that they have managed to overcome to reach levels on par with, if not far above, “normal” human abilities? Likewise, God fills in between the cracks of my limitations and weaknesses, allowing me to step into the person I was made to be, every once in a while. He uses me in my brokenness to display His strength. God uses the disabled as an encouragement to the able-bodied, a sweet reminder that He is at work in the world, and that with His help, anything is possible.