Call to Witness, a legal term, is a story that cries out to all of us.
I say this for a couple of reasons. It cries out because in one sense it forces all of us to live through an ordeal that we only want to live out on the page, not in real life. And yet, Jane Gagliardo’s story is empowering to anyone who reads it. The reader witnesses the ways life often “disables” all of us, and the essential intentionality required for a person not to be defined by one’s past, by others, or by any diagnosis or disability.
I began writing this book six years ago. I was mid-way through seminary, studying for a Masters of Divinity degree. Initially, I was hesitant–it is difficult to write someone else’s story, and extremely time consuming, but it was the sheer conviction with which Jane and her lawyer, Patrick Reilly, told me their story, that convinced me to write the book. The thing about Multiple Sclerosis, the illness that Jane suffers from, is that it is largely invisible to anyone who meets her. Sometimes it causes her to walk with a cane, but not often. Sometimes it is only a subtle expression on her face that would clue an observer to her pain.
The Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA), through which I was ordained, states: “Those with disabilities remind everyone else of their own susceptibility to illness, injury and mortality. Such reminders can beget the impulse to punish those who arise such anxiety.”
The reality is that everyone of us suffers some disability–not the kind the world sees, or even the kind most of us are willing to admit we have–we love too much or we love too little; we are owned by our anger towards someone in our past or present that literally deforms us; we are victimized by a culture that preys upon our inability to measure up to its impossible ideals. We live in a world that breeds insecurity, that shouts that we are not good enough. Everyone of us is human, and therefore vulnerable; everyone of us is strong yet frail.
As I began to write the book I discovered that over 50 million people over the age of 5 in the non-institutionalized population, have at least one disability; that means 1-in-5 residents, or 20 percent of the population. Over 21 million between the ages of 16-64 suffer a condition that affects their ability to work–accounting for 12 percent of people in this age bracket, and the number is growing daily with the graying of America.
Disability is becoming a part of our vocabulary as the stats continue to increase with the aging of the population, with aging parents, with Baby Boomers bellying up to middle age, with the increase in children with developmental disabilities. It is a word that has been uttered perhaps more than ever before. All words have weight, volume, mass. The word disability seems to be one that weighs more than most.
It is my hope that Call to Witness will issue a cry to stop dehumanizing those who have any disability, visible or invisible. And that all who read it will be compelled to embrace their own humanity, expressed in compassion and understanding, so that together the world would be a more hospitable place for all of us.