The Americans with Disabilities Act contains a three prong definition of disability. It is: 1. having a limitation to a major life activity, 2. having a history of such a limitation and, 3. being perceived as having such a limitation. The first is obvious, activities like seeing, walking, breathing, or thinking. The second means that, even if a disability does not exist, if one is perceived to have a disability attitudinal barriers may occur. The third is more elusive. If one has a facial difference, others may present barriers to that person as being seen as whole and worthwhile. My father was over-radiated horribly while being treated for mouth cancer. After many surgeries, he had no lower jaw. He wrote in his journal, ” “I look like a freak to me, but not in the eyes of those who love me, and surely that has to be the most important thing. Love is still very dear, and each day I’m alive, I thank God for that gift.” My dad said he would have done anything in his power to avoid having had cancer, but the disease allowed him to discover the love that was all around him.
“I have the greatest wife a man could hope for, the finest children, and with all that I am a very wealthy man,” he wrote shortly before his death. “I am rich in things no one can buy – love, consideration, prayers, friendships, and I could have never realized it without something like a small touch of cancer.”
Through these excerpts, we read the deepest musings of a man. He wrote “I have the kind of face that makes people look twice. The second time is to make sure they really saw what they thought they saw.”
Once, he sat in a dentist’s office with his high school best friend, a man for whom he served as best man. Yet his friend did not recognize him and said to my dad’s brother that he had never met him.
Facial disfigurement is perhaps the cruelest of all disabilities because one must overcome the psychological barrier of the other’s perception. We live in a culture that values attractiveness, worships attractiveness, uses attractiveness to sell everything from cars to mouth wash, and loves anyone fortunate enough to be born attractive. My dad went from wonderfully attractive to horribly disfigured. Yet he struggled, but maintained his deepest sense of self worth, gained profound insights and never lost his wry sense of humor. People are like that. We are all made of strong stuff. It is only loss which can present circumstances to us which will polish our inner hidden greatness. May we dismantle our inner barriers so that we can always see others as whole and worthy people; only then will we engage them as equals.