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Listening for the Gifts of Persons with Disabilities

I’ve started seeing news and life a little differently since my youngest daughter was born with Down Syndrome. In fact, I am even doing theology differently. I read the Bible with a little more awareness of how it may speak to issues of disabilities. I am beginning to think through Christian doctrines to see if they are inclusive or exclusive of persons with disabilities. In short, my thinking and seeing has become more inclusive. Some of my previous blind spots have been removed. My daughter’s disability has changed me, and is continuing to change me, for the better. It is one of her many gifts to me.

Back in November 19, 2010 I took four York University students with me to L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Canada to their Open House and Chapel Service that Friday evening. I did the same thing in the summer with a group of high school kids. Every time I went there for their chapel worship service, I am always blessed. I am always encouraged by the leadership of persons with disabilities. At L’Arche, the persons with disabilities are the “core members” of the community and the typically abled persons are their “assistants”. L’Arche’s founder Jean Vanier has a vision of community that gives dignity and respect to persons with disabilities as persons in their own right, with their own gifts to give us. It is so easy for typically abled people to treat persons with disabilities as charity cases, as patients, as objects of mercy and pity, as lesser persons, as the “disabled” — as if their disability totally defines who they are as persons.

So, at these worship services, persons with disabilities routinely take leadership roles alongside with assistants. They do the opening welcome. They helped lead music even if it was only banging a drum or playing spoons. They led in prayer. They helped serve the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. And they portray a genuine honest to goodness spirituality and a genuine acceptance of others. I wanted my Christian university students to see that and to learn from that. I wanted the future leaders of tomorrow to experience the gifts of persons with disabilities and to learn to see their personhood, first, and their disability, second.

Jean Vanier observed five different attitudes in Western societies toward people with disabilities. These five are:

  1. Seeing disability as a sign of disorder and needs to be suppressed or healed.
  2. A charitable attitude marked by pity.
  3. A recognition with respect and compassion that people with disabilities are human beings who can grow and progress.
  4. The realization that something good can happen when you are in a relationship with people with disabilities.
  5. “For some, there is a discovery that people with disabilities can lead them to God. They are a path to an experience of God. People with disabilities are necessary for the wholeness of the body, of humanity.” This process “is about humanizing disability, not spiritualizing it.” (Jean Vanier: Essential Writings, p. 48)

Jean Vanier’s writings remind me that all of us need each other and all the diversity of human life that comes with that — our intellectual, cultural, gender, ability and all other diversities.  I need persons with disabilities, like my daughter, to make me more human, to make me whole, just as much as she needs me and others to make her whole. I need the gifts my daughter with disabilities brings. I need her to help me see God, to see others, to see the world and finally, to see myself in deeper and better ways.

We can sometimes ignore the gifts of people like my daughter, people who for one reason or another are often marginalized. But Jesus was most often seen with people on the margins—women, Samaritans, tax collectors, people who had been written off as “unclean” and unworthy of attention. Matthew even records a parable of Jesus’ in which he makes the startling point that hanging out on the margins is where we’ll find Him (Matthew 25: 31-46). So this month, let’s go to the margins with our Savior and be transformed by Him. You can sign up to receive one five-minute story per day from the margins here for the month of November. Let’s get listening.

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