When you see someone with a disability in your community, what do you do?
Jerry identified five responses he observed:
Brave Little Soldier
In this scenario, one looks at the person with pity and can only think of how difficult their life must be. Words don’t come, and you may just pat them on the shoulder or head (yes, this still happens on rare occasions to Jerry) and utter a quick “God bless you” before turning away. All the while you’re thinking, I am glad that is not me. I couldn’t handle her life.
If You Only Had Enough . . .
Most often, this sentence ends with “Faith; you could be healed.” This line of thinking reminds me of airline miles. If I only had enough miles, I could get a free flight to paradise. In this example, faith is something one accumulates enough of, then trades it in to replace legs that don’t work, or a mind that processes differently, or eyes that can’t see.
Certainly, we are called to be people of faith. And God still heals people today. Jerry will tell you it often takes more faith to live with a disability.
Hide or Ignore
Perhaps you’re about to pass someone with a disability on a sidewalk and you feel uncomfortable. Do you take out your phone and pretend to be on it to avoid eye contact? Do you duck into a store feigning interest till they pass by?
Or maybe someone with a disability comes to your church, or other groups you belong to. Do you pull out the very last chair in the back row so they can be there, but not too obvious?
We agree, sometimes making eye contact with a person who is different from us can be difficult. In fact, even after years of disability ministry and family life, there are still some disabilities that create a feeling of discomfort within me (Joan). But rather than stuff that down, I need to look at the person and introduce myself. Sometimes that’s all it takes to begin a new relationship.
Stella Young, a disability advocate, tells the story of being fourteen and a neighbor asked permission to nominate her for an achievement award in their community. Stella’s parents rightly asked, “what did she do to deserve that?”
Stella shares she was just a girl sitting in her wheelchair in her bedroom watching teen-oriented television. To those neighbors, she was an inspiration because she got out of bed every day and lived her life in a wheelchair. To Stella, these friends put her on a pedestal and admired her for reasons that were quite benign.
Beware of thinking of people with disabilities only as people to look up to, or that they are always happy. Try to avoid considering them brave or courageous for no particular reason. When we idolize people, we create a chasm between us and them. This separation makes it hard for the person with a disability to be real, sad, angry, depressed, etc. around you because they try to live up to your imagery of them.
Engage and Embrace
See and treat those with disabilities as a real person . . . because they are! Remind yourself that we are all created in the image of God. The person you meet may move around the community differently or speak through a voice box or interpreter. But they also deal with similar joys and struggles as you do; relationships, family, financial concerns, jobs, etc.
Start simply in building rapport. Identify a common interest in sports, food, travel, etc. Share a part of your life with them. Invite them to an event you are attending. Step out of your comfort zone and invite them to dinner.
When living in another state, friends from church expressed a desire to invite Jerry and me to join them for dinner at their home. But they had fourteen steps. That is more than temporary ramps can handle. We brainstormed ideas with them. Ultimately, they asked if we would mind eating dinner in their garage. That was no problem for us.
When we arrived at their home, we expected to see a card table and folding chairs. We were surprised to see they had cleaned out their garage and carried their dining table and chairs (remember those fourteen steps?) and set them up in the garage.
It’s no wonder we remember these friends over twenty-five years later. They invested in and embraced a relationship with us.
Do you identify with one or more of these scenarios? We rarely live in one category all the time, but we can take small steps to alter our thinking and interactions. We’d love to hear your thoughts.