Life lessons the weak can teach the strong

French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier smiles during a press conference in central London on March 11, 2015, in which he was announced as the winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize. -- PHOTO: AFP
French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier smiles during a press conference in central London on March 11, 2015, in which he was announced as the winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize. -- PHOTO: AFP

It was an alien sound, animal- like and unexpected, and it drew my attention in the crowded coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio where families were tucking into claypot rice that Sunday night.

I looked around for its source and traced it to a man in his 20s. He did not speak, but made strange noises. He needed help to walk as his family rose from their table, soothing him and asking him to lower his voice as they left.

They were an ordinary family, and yet extraordinary. For at the risk of being stared at and mocked, they chose to take their intellectually-disabled son and brother out for a meal together. As the philosopher Jean Vanier once said of these families: "I marvel sometimes when I visit families with a son or a daughter who has a severe handicap. The parents are living each day, and sometimes the whole day, with little help or times of rest. They are not admired or honoured for what they are doing… And yet, isn't it those families who are living love and truth and humility in a special way?"

But who is Jean Vanier, you may ask. In March, Dr Vanier - who is 87 years old this year - was awarded the US$1.7 million (S$2.4 million) Templeton Prize, one of the richest prizes in the world for individuals and worth more than a Nobel, for his "exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension".

Raised to privilege - his father was governor-general of Canada - he served in the navy and earned a doctorate in philosophy. But his claim to fame is that he has since 1964 lived with people who have developmental disabilities. These include those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and intellectual impairment. And he has inspired others to do the same, through the L'Arche communities that he founded, of which there are 147 in 35 countries. He is also the co-founder of the Faith and Light movement that gathers families of people with such disabilities in communities around the world, including in Singapore.

His life testifies to how the strong can learn from the weak. "People who came to do good discover that the people they came to help are doing them good," he said recently. "As we come together to listen, we become, all of us, more human."

When he established the Templeton Prize more than 40 years ago, the late billionaire John Templeton - who set up Templeton Growth Funds which he later sold to the Franklin Group - sought to identify "entrepreneurs of the spirit" - "outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality".

Both the prize and its latest recipient are signs that point to people's longing for progress beyond the material, the kind of progress that often finds expression in caring for others, especially the vulnerable. And that seems to be the journey Singapore has embarked on as it matures as a society and nation.

The desire to build an "inclusive society" has now become a benchmark by which to measure policies and even business practices. The good news is that a growing number of individuals and organisations are doing their part, by employing people with disabilities. The Government supports such efforts through wage subsidies. Between 2012 and end 2013, the number of employers taking up such subsidies rose from 2,000 to 4,500. The number of disabled workers they employed went up from 3,200 to 5,700.

The tide has also turned in education and transport, where schools now welcome and work to integrate students with disabilities, and public transport agencies and companies remove barriers that make it difficult for people with physical disabilities to get around.

As a society, we have been gradually moving from neglect of those with disabilities, to acceptance and accommodation. The next step is harder, it is the step up to respect and recognition. For that is what makes Dr Vanier's example so revolutionary, his insistence that the very people society perceives as weak and in need of a helping hand can teach those who are stronger and self-sufficient how to be more human.

Many adults have realised the truth of this through their interactions with children, but far fewer have a chance to come face-to-face with people with disabilities. That too may change as more people with disabilities find jobs that plug them into city life.

A visit to a cafe where some wait staff have developmental disabilities can be a lesson not just in compassion and patience but also in human warmth and friendliness, for that is what many of them exude. I frequent one such cafe and have come to admire its staff's attentiveness and dedication to their work.

I introduced myself to one of them recently. The owner of the social enterprise that employs him told me this young man was in his 20s but his mental age was perhaps 13. As we chatted, the young man told me he was a Muslim and when he realised I was a Catholic, he said: "You Catholic, I Muslim, but all same."

In its own way, the assurance he gave me was both profound and deeply spiritual.