In the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey discovers how mistaken he was to wish that he had never been born. With the angel Clarence’s guidance, George’s whole perspective changes. He discovers that life is wonderful–adversities and all.
A human life is precious beyond all treasures. Most people have profound respect for human life, but adversity can test our reverence for life. Giving birth to a child with a chromosomal disorder or another disabling condition is one of those tests–both for the family and society.
Having a child with a seriously disabling condition can place considerable stress on a family, which is why the family needs to know it will have support from society to help their child live and ensure that their child is given the chance to live life to the fullest. Just like everyone else, disabled people have everything to live for.
Nevertheless, there are people who claim that certain imperfections make life not worth living. Generally, they’re not speaking about their own imperfections or their own lives. Rather, they are projecting onto others their personal bias (“I wouldn’t want to live like that”) as well as society’s preference for a certain “quality of life” and usefulness. Even some healthcare providers and policy makers assume that severe disability makes life intolerable. Less medical treatment for disabled patients is one unfortunate consequence of such prejudice.
I decided to research whether or not people with physical or mental disabilities, in general, find life intolerable. What follows is a small sampling of the evidence uncovered in my search.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics found that 99 percent of individuals with Down syndrome were happy with their lives, and that 97 percent of their parents and 94 percent of their siblings reported feelings of pride.
Tom Shakespeare, a sociologist born with a disability, researches disability studies, bioethics, and medical sociology. He writes,
“If you think about it for a moment, you realize that people born with impairment have nothing to which they can compare their current existence. Someone lacking hearing or sight has never experienced music or birdsong, visual art or a sublime landscape. Someone with an intellectual disability may not consider themselves different at all. Someone like me, born with restricted growth, has always been that way. Even if life is sometimes hard, we are used to being the way we are.”
He also reports, “Surveys reveal people with disabilities consistently report a quality of life as good as, or sometimes even better than, that of non-disabled people.”
What about people who became disabled later in life? A study highlighted in Psychology Today suggests that “people who do well in the wake of disability are the same people who were doing well before.” From that finding, it is reasonable to deduce that disabled people have a full range of personalities and emotions, just like everyone else. Some people simply enjoy life more than others, regardless of their comparative circumstances in life.
Frankly, I could find no convincing evidence that people who have physical or mental disabilities, regardless of their severity, are less capable of enjoying life or experiencing happiness than those who have perfect health, and full physical and mental prowess. If we remember this, perhaps we will be less prejudiced against people with disabilities.
Brian G. Skotko, Susan P. Levine, and Richard Goldstein, “Having a son or daughter with Down syndrome: Perspectives from mothers and fathers,” “Having a brother or sister with Down syndrome: Perspectives from siblings,” and “Self-perceptions from people with Down syndrome,” American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A 155, no. 10 (October 2011): 2335-2369.
Tom Shakespeare, “A Point of View: Happiness and disability,” BBC News Magazine, June 1, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27554754.
Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., “Life Satisfaction in the Wake of Disability: What one brings to a situation influences its impact,” The Good Life (blog), Psychology Today, December 8, 2011,