Special needs, the exceptional, people with disabilities, the mentally or physically challenged, handicapped. All are phrases used to label an issue we can’t quite define. We would like to place a positive spin on conditions that are often entirely too difficult to grasp, yet hold true beauty for those willing to look at these individuals from another perspective.
I have languished during a case conference in the presence of a tearful mother brokenhearted from the lack of ability to better help her daughter in her learning struggles. I have witnessed a mama fighting tooth and nail for advantages for her son with autism— sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. I have spoken with a mom on the phone while her son screamed and threw things in the background as she yelled and blamed me for his state of mind at the moment.
Yet, conversely, I enjoyed joyful moments with precious students dealt an extra dose of challenge from life. I spent nine years teaching elementary school, eight of which I had the blessing of instructing an inclusion classroom. Over the years I had students of varying abilities with a plethora of diagnoses. The one year I didn’t have this privilege caused me great sadness. Something valuable was missing from my classroom. You see, although some may feel the other students are robbed of greater learning opportunities because the teacher’s attention is divided to help meet these greater needs, I would argue their experience is actually far richer. What superior gifts could you give to any person than the opportunity to practice greater compassion, grace, patience, generosity, understanding, and kindness? Because these are the qualities available to us to acquire when we come in contact with individuals who face greater challenges than the rest of us.
Faces and names come to mind. Katie and her big blue eyes with her bone-crushing bear hugs. Nick, who would bat those long eyelashes that nearly brushed the inside of his thick glasses while he tried to charm his way out of typing on his laptop. Kristin with her furrowed brow of concentration as she worked harder than any other student I ever had to make sense of what she was trying to accomplish. Nate with his impish grin and love for Putt-Putt, his heart full to bursting with affection.
I would be lying if I said disability didn’t have an ugly side. I witnessed it firsthand with my dad as Parkinson’s robbed his body of nearly every function. Stricken with polio, I’ve heard the stories of my grandpa’s physical therapy as a young child— the pain, sweat, and tears. I also know what I gained from these dear family members. From my dad I observed the ability to give thanks in the midst of the most difficult of situations, and the power of the mere presence of an individual. From my grandpa I learned to not make excuses for limitations, and how to focus on my strengths instead. He might have been confined to a wheelchair at the end of his life, but the man could sing like an angel.
Recently, I listened to a podcast called On Being with Krista Tippet. She interviewed Jean Vanier, a French Canadian philosopher, Catholic social innovator, and friend of Mother Teresa. In 1964 he started L’Arche, a community in France for those with intellectual disabilities. This dear man has a gentle way of speaking and a sincere heart for those who might otherwise be outcast by his society. He recalled a day when a gentleman who was rather glum entered his office. While they were talking, a boy by the name of Jean Claude who had Down syndrome made an appearance. Jean Claude laughed while he shook both men’s hands and then left. The downcast man said, “That’s sad…children like that.” Jean Vanier pointed out that what was truly sad was that the man did not see that Jean Claude was happy.
As I ponder the opportunity to cure disabilities and remove them from our lives, I have mixed emotions. I recently learned from a TED talk that advancements in medical technology have come so far that Down syndrome can now be detected by a simple blood test while the baby is in utero. This allows for the option of terminating the pregnancy at a much earlier stage. I heard this and cringed, because I value life from conception and wonder the true benefit of such a decision. What great loss our society might experience. I’m sure many parents of children with this anomaly would agree. They see their children as a blessing.
I love to read young adult literature, especially those books featuring dystopian societies. The idea of “what if” intrigues me. One such book I read was called Uglies. In this society makeovers that far surpass the quality of the former TV show Extreme Makeover are required at the age of 16 for all of the citizens. This series provides a fascinating look into what life would be like with all physical and mental challenges and illnesses removed. The ramifications are much darker than what one might anticipate. A world of perceived perfection births its own demons.
As a parent, I understand the need to protect my children from hardship. I have heard parents of children with disabilities say they would cure their children if they could, to prevent pain or difficulty, but they have also expressed how they personally have grown and been positively challenged by the experience of raising a special needs child. I would eagerly have cured my dad if I could, but important lessons I learned while caring for him would be absent. Joy can be found.
The Bible assures us in Psalm 139:14 that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The scripture doesn’t state any exceptions. I cannot adequately explain the reality of disabilities in our lives, but I do know not one individual on this planet lacks purpose or true beauty.
So, I ask, who are you most like: the glum man in the office at L’Arche, who offered only pity, or more like Jean Vanier who sees the inherent value in the amazing people he has devoted his life to? We need to offer those facing some of life’s greatest challenges our grace, acceptance, and encouragement.
For those of you who have looked into the face of the unimaginable, I applaud you for your courage. Whether you yourself have some sort of disability, or you are their family member, I want you to know that your example can make all of the difference in someone’s life.
“You’re an overcomer
Stay in the fight ‘til the final round
You’re not going under
‘Cause God is holding you right now
You might be down for a moment
Feeling like it’s hopeless
That’s when He reminds You
That you’re an overcomer
You’re an overcomer”
—Overcomer by Mandisa
Photos are compliments of Katie K Photography taken for a 2014 Down Syndrome Family Connection calendar project. If you are interested in purchasing a calendar you can do so at their web site beginning in October.