I’ve been musing on this concept lately. It seems like our society views healthiness as the measure of a person’s worthiness or ability to contribute. I find that view somewhat skewed, as when I was at my healthiest in terms of BMI and resting heart rate I probably contributed less to society than any prior person in the history of time.

I guess I started thinking about it when considering how society at large views people with disabilities. There is a perception, albeit mostly unspoken, that because they are not “healthy” or “fully functioning” then there is no ability to contribute to society therefore no societal worth. My opinion is that some of this thinking comes from the horribly wrong and intensely myopic concept of social darwinism.

For those that aren’t humanities scholars, social darwinism is the belief that the “survival of the fittest” doctrine espoused by Darwin applies in some way to a persons social and economic status. Historically it has been used to justify some of the most horrible atrocities the United States has perpetrated, including the eugenics movement. It has since fallen out of conscious favor, as the Nazis espoused it and used it as the main reason for the holocaust.

I understand why people think that way. It seems like a straight line. Society provides a place where the fittest rise to the top and the least fit die poor and alone. If we all started at the same place that might be true, but since we are all given different opportunities it rings hollow. Not everyone gets the same shot. Some of us were born lucky. I am one of those. I’m a decent looking white guy of above average intelligence born in late 20th century America. I have no glass ceiling. From a societal standpoint, I have the easiest row to hoe. I was also born into a middle class family, which is a huge step up from a poor family. The fact that I have a family at all is a huge win for some kids. I was also born healthy with all my limbs and major metabolic systems functioning adequately. From the social darwinism perspective, I should be CEO of a major corporation, or at least upper management. The only way my lot could have been better is if my parents were rich.

People don’t work that way though. I had a ton of advantages, but I didn’t care much for them. I’ve never wanted to be a CEO of anything. This is where social darwinism falls apart. It doesn’t take into account people’s wants and desires. From a social darwinism perspective, there would be no civil rights movement because those people born into poverty would all die due to their worthlessness. However, I digress. How is this relevant to disabilities?

Most folks tend to view health as a measure of success, in spite of the fact that most “successful” people have high blood pressure, heart disease or some other major health challenge. Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant scientists the world has ever known, but he is confined to a wheelchair by a debilitating health condition. Lance Armstrong won the Tour De France 7 times in a row after defeating cancer. How in the world can we say health equals worth?

I was a pretty selfish kid/young adult. I didn’t care much for anything and floated along. Don’t get me wrong, I always had a job and I always voted, but that was about the limit of my societal contribution. My jobs were always about money, not helping people. I didn’t volunteer. I didn’t go to church. I didn’t give to charity. I didn’t build or create much of anything. Not all of that is necessary to add value to society, but you get the idea. That changed when I hit 30 and began waking up.

As it turns out, its a good thing I woke up. What I learned volunteering in my early 30s served me well when I found out my son had a disability. Many of the people I met in the community have been real allies in helping my son. I learned that “societal worth” has little to do with appearances and everything to do with being real. Healthy or unhealthy, disabled or not, everyone can contribute and everyone has worth. The next time you discount someone’s opinion because they are overweight, sick or disabled, I urge you to stop and listen. That person’s idea may be the next world changing concept.