Is a developmentally disabled child inferior to a non-disabled child?

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

In studying the hierarchy of material substances in the material universe and the various powers (faculties or potentialities) of the souls (substantial form) of living substances, the question arose: "Are developmentally disabled children inferior to the non-disabled?" The question arose because we saw that the criterion for determining whether a substance is superior to another lies in a thing's powers. Animals have more powers (potentialities to activity) than a plant, which only has the three powers of growth, reproduction, and nutrition. An animal has all these as well as the powers of sensation (external, internal, and sense appetite, and locomotion). Man is superior to animal in that he has all the powers of the level below him, but more, namely, intellect and will.

A disabled child, however, lacks certain powers that a non-disabled child has, such as the ability to see (blindness), or the ability to walk, or reason at a normal level, etc. Can we not conclude that the non-disabled are superior to the disabled?

The answer is, no, we cannot. There are two kinds of superiority or inferiority corresponding to the two modes of being, namely substantial and accidental. We can distinguish between essential superiority and accidental superiority. Man is essentially superior to brute, and animals are essentially superior to plants, etc. We can even discern a hierarchy within the hierarchy of animals. For example, a horse is superior to a worm, etc. But there is no specific hierarchy within the human level, that is, there are no various species of man as there are species of animal, or species of plant life. All human persons are essentially equal, but we are not all accidentally equal. Consider the accident of quality, which is divided into affective qualities, habit/disposition, abilities, and figure. Each of us has certain intellectual and physical dispositions. Some are disposed to be better athletes (i.e., faster runners, better swimmers, etc.); some are intellectually disposed, for example, to the mathematical, or the historical, or the political, etc. Some people achieve high marks in the sciences, but very low marks in the humanities, and vice versa. We are not all equal, at least not accidentally. But we are all essentially equal.

A disabled child is still a human person. A child born blind still has the faculty of sight, but that potentiality cannot be realized by virtue of some kind of damage to the organ of the sense of sight (the eye). An intellectually disabled child still has an intellect that is capable of intellectual abstraction, judgment and reasoning, but these activities are seriously impaired or impeded as a result of brain damage - this is not to suggest that the mind is the brain, only that the mind depends on the brain which produces phantasms.

We do not say that a child is disabled because it does not have wings, nor do we insist that a dog is disabled because it cannot reason. It does not belong to the nature of a human being to have wings, nor does it belong to the nature of a dog to have intelligence. But it does belong to the nature of a human being to have the ability to reason, and so if a person cannot reason, there is a genuine disability there. But it is a human person that suffers the disability. It is not the activity itself (second act) that renders one essentially superior; rather, it is the nature of the being (first act) that renders one essentially superior, for it is first act that determines the substance to be the kind of thing it is. Its activity only follows upon that first act.

The increasingly popular viewpoint that the lives of disabled children are of less value (the quality of life mentality) than the lives of healthy children is rooted in a failure to distinguish between first and second act. You are not your activity. You are not living (first act) because you are breathing (second act or activity); rather, you are breathing (second act or activity) because you are alive (first act). In the same way, you are not a person because you are thinking; rather, you are thinking (second act) because you are a person (first act). A bird that cannot fly because its wings have been clipped or because it is physically deformed in some way is still a bird (first act). So too, the severely disabled child is still a human person and has more value than the healthiest and most useful and productive animal; for animals exist to serve the needs of man, but man exists for his own sake. The developmentally disabled are among us to provide us with the opportunity to learn to love human beings not for what they might do for us, but for their own sake. When we have finally learned to love others for their own sake, not for the sake of their usefulness and productivity, only then have we become the persons we are meant to be. A culture likes ours that neglects or destroys its most vulnerable (abortion and infanticide) and values only the useful is a culture that more closely resembles the pre-civilized and barbaric. Although we have progressed technologically, there is plenty of evidence that we have digressed morally.