Our responsibility for justice
It is a very familiar sight, and a disturbing reality. Our busy streets have become home to individuals with mental disability, persons who are labeled “subnormal” by the majority of the human race. It is a grim picture that reveals a striking account of the quality of life, or the lack thereof, in these parts, and the telling question with respect to how Philippine society actually treats the basic dignity of persons.
The experience is cruel, and it can arrest our conscience with regard to how we, as human beings, if all truth be told, understand the meaning of social justice. If philosophy were to truly matter in life, then our reflections must serve the most downtrodden, and we cannot think of any other except perhaps the defenseless person who has been sadly bequeathed with that misfortune of cognitive impairment.
But while our laws are often intended to be the remedy for the unfair treatment of persons with cognitive disability, society as a whole often fails in addressing the systemic abuse that these persons also have to endure. Children and adults who have been diagnosed with autism, for instance, experience many forms of discrimination. They are subjected to embarrassing situations, denied of their basic right to fully grow as persons, and deprived in many ways of the valuable things to which they are entitled as members of mainstream society.
The real problem is that people with a mental handicap do not have the means to be able to deal with the difficulties of a particular situation. Someone who possesses a high mental aptitude can reflect on his or her troubles and come up with solutions. Most people can deliberate on particular options before a choice is made. This is not the case for an autistic child.
Yet, nothing in the world or experience of an autistic child makes him or her less than any human. Nothing in this precious human being’s condition precludes the possibility of enjoying life as it is. Indeed, everything that revolves around this child, the people who show him or her love and affection, the joys of being with a real person, and the endless desire to play with things even if everything ends up broken, are all part of what it means to be human.
Life revolves around a sense of purpose. But it is wrong to think that this sense of purpose is exclusive only to individuals who can attend normal school or hold a regular job. In our case, the big problem is our prejudice. We exclude people with mental disability from what we normally call life.
The normalizing ways of modern society dictate what people can or cannot do. The unequal positioning in society imposes harsh standards on individuals with functional impairment which curtail their growth as individuals. As such, to commit oneself unconditionally to the care of an individual with a lifetime impairment can only be a labor of love.
But society also needs to do its share in helping parents of children with special needs cope with their situation. Acceptance, patience, and tolerance can mean a lot in helping persons with autism (and their caregivers) adapt to their immediate social environment. For instance, it is crucial to train government personnel, especially those who work in public transport systems, to handle extreme situations involving children with autism.
Legislation on subsidizing the prohibitive costs of occupational therapy is necessary in order to equalize the education of all children. Congress can enact laws regulating intervention centers in order to ensure the welfare and safety of individuals with cognitive impairment.
Social justice corresponds to an irrevocable moral duty. It is our society’s moral obligation to recognize the rights of individuals who require extreme care. In sum, we must respect all human beings as equal in dignity. This is the essence of our responsibility for justice on which the very core of our humanity is founded.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.