So… this is a pretty broad topic. And it applies to many people and circumstances, not just those with “special needs.” However, I think conversations and reflections like this are important because they help us to think, evaluate, encourage and engage in making the difference we would like to see.
How are we — parents, leaders, teachers, friends, professionals, workers — working towards a safe and affirming space for those with disabilities?
A quick search for the word inclusion generates a host of possible applications. For this discussion, Wikipedia’s concise description fits well:
Inclusion is a term used by people with disabilities and other disability rights advocates for the idea that all people should freely, openly and without pity accommodate any person with a disability without restrictions or limitations of any kind. Although disability rights has historically existed as a relatively cohesive movement, the movement centered on inclusion has only recently begun to take shape and to position itself in the eye of the general public.
Meaningful Connections. How are we fostering significant relationships? In our individualized and self-centric culture, how are we intentionally and thoughtfully cultivating healthy, well-rounded people? Regardless of ability or intellect, how are we providing opportunities for positive attachments within family, friendship/peer circles, education systems, and church and community programs? Are we supporting families with on going care for persons with disabilities?
As a mother of a daughter with life-long learning disabilities and some physical challenges, the most powerful encouragement has come from those who didn’t have all the right words to say, or all the right ways to “fix it,” but have simply been present. They have listened as I’ve processed all of life’s possibilities (after doctor appointments, this is particularly challenging). It has been the friend who showed up spontaneously the night before Kezia’s infant MRI to say “You can do this!” (And, somehow, she just knows, because she is walking this road too.) It was the neighbour that offered me a shoulder and a cup of coffee while I freaked out about Kezia going to school. It has been the family member that let me call incessantly when anxiety was at it’s highest. It is the person who asks, “how are things going?” and listens to the response ;). It is hearing a doctor say, “We need to talk this out because you, as the parent, need to be confident and comfortable with a treatment plan of action. Call me when you think of more questions.”
For a beautiful article on sitting with a friend going through a hard time, read “Motherhood Is The Strongest Bond.” I still can’t get through it without grabbing a kleenex.
For Kezia, it has been the chance to be included in a ball hockey game, for someone to slow down and walk with her at her own pace. It was the birthday party invite and for me, the chance to get to know parents of the girls in her class. It is knowing that those working with Kezia respect her and want what is best for her.
Meaningful Contributions. Are we providing meaningful work for those with disabilities?
That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God. Ecclesiastes 3:13.
In the days before Jonathan & I were married, I was a live-in nanny. (MAN that feels like eons ago!) Not having my own children, the whole “parenting” thing felt like a bit of a mystery. I will never, ever forget the delight in in this little fella’s face when I gave him his very own work job to do — his weekly responsibility was to vacuum the den. He couldn’t wait to show me “the surprise” when it was done. He couldn’t wait to tell his mom (her and I did end up having a helpful conversation about this too!). He was satisfied with a job well done. Even now, our own girls have daily/weekly work jobs that they do. (They are not always thrilled and willing :), mind you, but somehow it gets done.) The point is — meaningful work is rewarding. It builds skill and confidence. It helps prevent us from wasting our God-given, precious time. A job well done offers the thrill of satisfaction that few other things can. It is not about becoming successful or valuable based on what we can produce, but encouraged and empowered through the act of contributing to society and the lives in others in a positive and productive way.
That’s why I love stories like the man who opened a teaching hotel for folks that have disabilities. One Dad’s Dream
“As a disability movement, we must move forward on innovation to increase education that leads to employment options and independence—not just more services.”
Meaningful Communities. I think, at the core of it, is the human desire of belonging. You know the old Cheers song….
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
I think most of us can relate to that feeling of not fitting in, of not knowing our place, of not feeling comfortable; unsure of whether or not our contributions are considered worthy and acceptable. For those with disabilities, this struggle can be even more pronounced. Who will sit with the child who cannot run, or work through communication issues with the one who can’t speak? How are we modelling this for our children?
This is just one opportunity for belonging: the University Participant (UP) Program at Western Carolina University. It seeks to provide a university experience, with suitable education expectations, for those who would not otherwise have the chance to engage in this growth and independence.
The students designed what became the University Participant (UP) Program, a fully inclusive 2-year program–full residence, dorms, classes, work, support, communication, goals, accountability–and soon found one student with special needs who wanted to come. “We were building the airplane as we were flying it,” Dr. Kelly Kelley remembers.
So. How are we doing? I hope that we’ve come a long way from viewing some lives as more worthy or successful or important than others. That we’ve moved away from shutting people up and away, out of sight, out of mind. That we are taking steps in the direction that makes space for everyone, not just the elite few.
But, really, how are we doing with this? How do our social networks – our schools, our churches, our families, our communities reflect this?
What could we be doing differently?
What should we continue?
Or what could we stop doing altogether?