Friday, February 7, 2014

How misguided values make us sick

A number of stories crossed my desk recently that made me think about how our culture assigns value to people and how this disadvantages families of children with disabilities.

First I read this New York Times piece about how we tend to equate a person’s income with their inner worth: You are the money you make.

This measuring stick not only divides people socially, the authors say, but it harms them at a personal level, making some meaner and others sad and fearful. 

A study referenced suggests mania and narcissism are the byproduct of our efforts to achieve economic status, while anxiety and depression are a response to poverty.

These tendencies are magnified when the gap between rich and poor widens.
For example, the authors note that mental illnesses are three times as common in developed countries where the differences between rich and poor are bigger.

“As larger differences in material circumstances create greater social distances, feelings of superiority and inferiority increase,” they write.

Then I read this study that uses the 2010 Ohio Family Health Survey to look at differences in financial and psychological stress levels between parents caring for children with and without disabilities.

The study shows that children with disabilities are 3.4 times as likely to live with parents with high financial stress and very high psychological stress than children without disabilities. This finding was based on surveys with 210 households with a child with disability and 1,614 households with a child without disability.

Because U.S. parents are more likely to have to cut back on their work hours or leave a job completely to care for their child with disability, they’re more likely to experience significant financial problems. Side note: Yesterday we read this story about a single mom who was fired because she stayed home with her child with special needs on a snow day.

In the Ohio study, parents caring for children with physical limitations were almost three times as likely to be unable to pay for basic needs; two times as likely to have used up most personal savings; and two-and-a-half times as likely to be unable to pay household bills.

Those caring for children with behavioural, emotional or developmental problems were almost two times as likely to have problems paying for medical bills; twice as likely to be unable to pay for basic essentials; and 1.7 times as likely to have used up personal savings.

Overall, the families of children with disabilities were 4.2 times as likely as those without to be classified as having serious depression and twice as likely to need treatment or counselling for mental health, substance abuse or emotional problems.

They're facing two cultural stigmas: The idea that disability somehow reduces a person’s value, and the notion that reduced income, as noted above, further erodes one's worth.

Yesterday I read this blog post by Joel Yanofsky, author of Bad Animals, a memoir about raising his son Jonah, who has autism.

In it, he recounts a situation many of us can relate to. You’re at a party, talking with someone you’ve never met, and they begin fretting about which university their child is going to get into. It’s a kind of twisted social-ranking game for party-goers, because you know that as soon as this parent gets the largely feigned angst out of their system, they’re going to turn to you and ask about your child’s university prospects.

Joel writes: “She began describing her son’s efforts to find a good CEGEP – CEGEPs, here, are the equivalent of U.S. junior colleges – once he graduated from high school. I knew, of course, where the conversation was headed and braced myself.

“Your son must be thinking about CEGEP, too,” she said.

“Jonah is on the autism spectrum,” I said. “He attends a special needs school. College isn’t likely to be in the picture.”

A long silence followed; it seemed long anyway. There wasn’t much for her to say. She hadn’t said anything wrong. If anything, I felt a little bad for her. I’ve come to terms with the fact my son has autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not brought up short, on occasion – reminded all of a sudden that your life, his life is going to be very different from the lives of other people. It’s what I call the “what-if-moment” – the moment you can’t help wondering what if your son didn’t have autism. What would his life, your life be like?”

The crux of the matter is that families like ours are different. Our kids may or may not achieve conventional success. Hopefully they’ll spur us to question what a good life is, and open a window in the minds of those around us too. Maybe we'll help others see that our culture's values could use a tweaking. Instead of focusing on how much we can get in life, perhaps we can focus more on how we connect.

Following the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, I saw this fascinating interview he gave with the philosopher Simon Critchley. The two chat about what it means to be happy.

Hoffman quickly discredits the idea that happiness is pleasure. “I would definitely say pleasure is not happiness,” he says. “There is no pleasure that I haven’t actually made myself sick on.

“I think I’m happy when I’m with [my children] and they’re okay,” he continues. “Something happens in that moment when they’re okay and that’s an important thing. When I see them enjoying each other and then they let me enjoy them in turn…that brings a feeling which I would say is happiness.

To which Critchley suggests that happiness isn’t something internal or something we can stockpile, like money, but that “it lies without. I think it lies in our very specific relationships with people.”

Which helps explain, I think, why we parents find joy in our children, regardless of their abilities or health. There’s something about the presence of our children—our relationship with them, separate from what they can do, how well they do it, and the way other people see and evaluate them—that can fill us with contentment.

If only we didn’t have to justify them to others.


This is very true, and very interesting. I completely agree with the last part when you stated us as parents find joy in our children regardless, just being around my littl one brings joy, and the moments we see we cherish. Your right. Why should we have to justify to others?

I love this post and hope it'll be widely shared. Thank you.

Isn't it statistics like this that make parents abort/relinquish their children with disabilities? How do you respond to people who use such statistics to justify thinking of people with disabilities as "burdens"?