He ain’t heavy


A friend who has a degenerative spinal condition recently reminded me why we need to pause and pull back from our grappling with The Disability Inclusion Challenge as something out there, and fold back in a reflective fashion upon ourselves.

The song

He sent me an email out of the blue asking what song I’d choose as a kind of disability anthem. He had chosen “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and included this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT57tjz9py8 in the email without mentioning the title.

It was my choice too, as a reflex.

Wikipedia says He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother “is a ballad written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. Originally recorded by Kelly Gordon in 1969, the song became a worldwide hit for the Hollies later that year and also a hit for Neil Diamond in 1970. It has been recorded by many artists in subsequent years. The Hollies’ version was re-released in 1988 and again was a major hit in the UK.”

The title has an interesting origin. This is from Wikipedia:

James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, tells the story of a little girl carrying a big baby boy in his 1884 book The Parables of Jesus. Seeing her struggling, someone asked if she wasn’t tired. With surprise she replied: “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.” 

In a 1918 publication by Ralph Waldo Trine titled The Higher Powers of Mind and Spirit, Trine relates the following anecdote: “Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself, when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry, when instantly came the reply: ‘He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither.'” 

You can read the full story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/He_Ain%27t_Heavy,_He%27s_My_Brother

The flip

My friend then sent me a follow up email, saying, “I forgot to include my dual purpose interpretation – It also works for me on a spiritual level – my higher self and my conditional human.

But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go

His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there

For I know

He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

It was a potent reminder how it is for people whose bodies can seem to be working against them – whether through a condition at birth, an accident, or an acquired illness later in life – and how differently they can respond. 

Living with the daily experience of disability varies in intensity. For some it’s a steady state of degrees of difficulty on a scale from okay to an incredible hassle. For others it’s a variable experience – physically and psychologically. There are days when its tempting to just put the burden down. But, as my friend reminds me, there’s a song for that. However, not everyone knows it, or can [or wants to] sing it.


The email reminded me how differently people with disability respond to their lived experience, and how, now and then, there is unexpected beauty in the description of that experience. 

It was a small thing, an email from few weeks ago that I read and appreciated in relative haste. But as I was pruning my inbox today I had time to pause and let its depth register with me as my mouse hovered over the delete option.


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