Monday, June 3, 2013

Thoughts on Disability

As a society, we have decided that men, women and children who have specific disabilities are broken. As such we relegate them to special areas and corners in schools, we don't let them have certain jobs, and in general would much rather have them in segregated communities, than walking among us. The occasional child with down's syndrome is okay. Depending on what part of the autism spectrum someone is, they might be able to break through. But everyone else...please keep them away.

I start this week off with that rude statement. But I write it, because, even if we would never say it with our lips, we live in a society that views people with disabilities as broken...and we don't like broken things or people. It is kind of the same concept as nursing homes or funeral homes. We want a few places set aside where it is okay to experience brokenness, but it needs to stay out of the rest of our lives thank you very much. And we may choose never to visit those places at all.

Now, before I lose the people who might be quite upset by me calling your child, your aunt, your friend broken, let me say...I challenge the way our society has handled and continues to handle people with "disabilities." Sure, there are certain limitations caused by certain ailments. True, some parents either emotionally, physically or financially cannot care for someone who needs around the clock care. But what we have done is set aside a population and said, "They really have nothing to offer. So we will care for them...away from the others." And frankly the assumption that those we have labeled with disabilities have nothing to offer is quite a poor one. And that same assumption is why we mislabel those with disabilities as broken in some regard.

I have mentioned my friends Anne and Nick on here before. They are part of the Vineyard, where I attend church. They are both great. I have been in a small group with Anne before, and Nick and I have spent time together with the college crew. But there is a larger story than that with disability in my life. I have been surrounded by disabled kids, men and women my whole life. From cousins with various ailments I cannot pronounce, to parents in my hometown who decided to raise their children in regular society, I grew up in a community that did a reasonably good job in this area.

I oddly want to tell a story from before I was born. My dad, the incomparable Buck Love (yep...that's his real can confirm that dad by leaving a comment...and you can correct this story) was raised in an era where segregation was the law...even if it was not always adhered to. He grew up in Florence, TX, like myself. He had this friend, I believe to be me named Jesse. Jesse was African American. Buck, Jesse and a few others went to the rodeo and someone threw the "n-word" around. They asked Dad and his friends why they were hanging out with this "that word." Dad said he looked around to see what they were talking about, and because Jesse was, well Jesse, it took him a minute to realize someone was referring to him. I think the incident ended with a scrap of some sort. Probably won by the boys from Florence. I assume as much because my dad is a great story teller... and because in Florence we start wrestling pigs, sheep, goats and calves by the time we are 4 years, we're all pretty grizzly and tough.

That is how our community reacted to various children with disabilities. Whether it was people from other communities making fun of (another) Jesse who played the cowbell in our marching band when I was in high school, or kids from other churches staring at Celeste when we went to camp, we rallied around our own kids. Because they were us. That was all there was to it.

That said, growing up in a large, Southern family where we all gathered quite frequently, we sometimes didn't (and still don't) understand what to make of life with our cousins with various needs. A lack of understanding didn't equate with a lack of just meant, how do you include members of your family who will never be able to communicate with verbal or sign language? How do we react to stares when with our cousins around town? How do you support your family who give their entire lives caring for their children? Do you go to the hospitals for surgeries? At Christmas when someone is getting a little loud, do you change rooms? These are questions we all had to deal with, because, as I stated above...these are our people. They belong to us.

And the Church needs to deal with these same questions. Henri Nouwen posed these questions a long time ago. Some people started to look at these issues. Others have just gone along with society and relegated care of "them" to others. I'll admit that I have not always been the advocate for inclusion that I should be. It becomes hard to juggle too many things at once. But recently through interactions with Anne and Nick, and reading Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus, I have been confronted with the reality that the Church needs to wrestle with how we treat others. In the case of most people it is "Are we asking too much," and in the case of men and women with disabilities, I argue the question changes to "Are we asking too little?"

If your church does confirmation...people with disabilities should be involved. If there is a youth group, the disabled should be involved. Do families volunteer to serve in communion? Their child with disabilities should be involved. This is an era we are fighting for the rights of so many people. And I want to take a moment and advocate for full inclusion of the disabled in communal life... because they are just as able as an "able-bodied" person is.

As I mentioned, sure there may be certain developmental issues that prevent full comprehension of the Gospel. There may be a cognitive impairment that prevents someone from engaging fully in our confirmation conversations. But there is also a lot to be learned, not only from mere presence, but from the insights of those who think other than we do.

Inclusion of those with disabilities isn't just a quaint idea. It isn't even just something that challenges us in how we see humanity and God. It is also a challenge to the woman with Down's or the man with autism to engage with community as well. These men and women aren't just dolls put on a shelf. They aren't just decorations that churches can point to saying, "We're really trying...see here!" They are human. They can give to community just as we give to community. They can receive from community just as we receive from community. So inclusion is just a natural step and a challenge that we need to engage.

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