Mind Over Matter

May 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Now there are more of them, men and women grievously wounded in Iraq, who have been blinded or consigned to wheelchairs, or who walk very slowly, with a little help. They join a distinct population: The blind, the lame, and the halt.

They were once called that, in an age when those who wore their human injuries for all to see were set apart from the rest of us who were luckier. But now they move among us more readily, thanks to ramps in office buildings and special accommodations in theaters, stadiums, and other public places. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act did that. Because of Section 508 and a general advance in thinking about such things, the blind, the lame, and the halt find it easier to reenter the more mobile world.

And they improve it, for whenever we see them– usually fleetingly, out of the corner of an eye, with our heads turning away quickly, so as not to stare rudely– whenever we see them, the common thought is, “that could be me.” And we know it could. Shrapnel from a hand grenade or a bomb; a terrible accident or disease; something acquired or inborn, and anyone would be among the bent, the slower.

The blind, the lame, and the halt serve others profoundly as exhibitions of Jefferson’s creed: All people created equal, equally fragile, equally available to mishap, or equally strong, for that matter, since the disabled are able to do a lot. (Singing in Italian).

Never mind the spectacular feats: The special Olympics; the wheelchair basketball games; runners racing with metal legs. The blind artists who sing seem to take their voices from heaven. These are the high-wire acts. Yet it is the so-called ordinary disabled who take you breath away. Observe someone move from a wheelchair to a stationary boat or vice versa– the concentration on the act, the mastery of will.

For them, mind overcomes matter in two ways. The mind is who they are. It moves as fluidly as an all- American athlete. Television, in its good-hearted but absurd way, once tried to make a point about the disabled. For a while in the 1970s and ’80s, TV created disabled heroes: Tate, a cowboy who had one arm, Raymond Burr as Ironsides, the wheelchair-bound detective. James Franciscus played a blind detective who got into fistfights with criminals and won. I suppose the intention of these programs was to say, see, disabilities don’t matter.

But, of course, they do matter. They encumber life with yet more difficulties. One would prefer to be rid of them, just as those differently disabled would prefer to be rid of neuroses, depression, guilt, corrosive malice, a tendency to lie and gossip, and other maladies less visible on the street. And that is why we are all served by being in one another’s presence.

For the blind, the lame, and the halt observe the quicker population, too, and know, from hard experience, that everyone has a time of it. Everyone limps, rolls, needs a white cane. The disabled are people, not symbols. At the same time, they represent the entire race in all its weakness, power, and choice. That could be me. It is. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.