A close friend confessed to me this week that she had read my blog and really liked it. Then she said “It’s so admirable what you do…I couldn’t do it…I wouldn’t know how to talk to them.”
This really made me think, and I appreciated her honesty. I asked her why she thought she couldn’t talk to people with learning disabilities and she was humble enough to give me these reasons:
- Sometimes you don’t get any response from your greetings or attempts to converse – this makes me feel really awkward and I don’t know what to do next.
- I’m afraid of feeling foolish and making mistakes.
- I don’t know where to look – if they are physically different, should I ask them about it or not?
- I might patronise them, they might not want me helping them.
After discussing around this for a while we agreed – As in all things that we avoid – it is FEAR that prevents us doing something. We ASSUME we’re going to make a mess of it or fail and so we decide we’d better not try, just in case we make matters worse. We make assumptions about all kinds of things…and disabiltity is a big area for assumptions!
I occasionally do a disability awareness lesson for high school classes. I start by asking the kids what they assume it is like to have a sensory, physical or learning disability. When I teach about autism we examine commonly held assumptions. Often they are inaccurate. People have picked up assumptions from the media, hearsay or have no idea at all, because they don’t have meningful contact with people with learning and other disabilties.
I wondered what made me feel so comfortable with these amazing people and it’s nothing special or magic. I haven’t been given a special ‘gift’ from God that helps me understand when someone is babbling to me or looks at me blankly when I ask them something. I can only put it down to practice. I have been invloved with children and adults with learning disabilities since I was a child and so am ‘used’ to all different kinds of people. My friend agreed, “If I gave it a go,” she said, “I’m sure it would be easier after a few times.”
The only answer whether we are assuming something about the person with a disability or assuming something about our own performance in relating to them is to put those assumptions aside and try to relate to each other anyway.
If people with learning and other disabilities are to feel welcomed and supported in our churches we must ourselves not be one of the barriers. If we are too worried about our own performance we neglect the fact that the other person needs people to communicate with them, getting to know them and building relationships. It starts with a smile and a greeting, simple questions that show interest in them as a person, and the ability to be patient, listen and ask God for help in our understanding. If a person cannot talk, we can still communicate and in the next few posts I will explore some of the ways we can begin to welcome people with learning disabilities into our churches and make them feel noticed, welcome and accepted in God’s family.
The last word should go to people with learning disabilities themselves. One lady I know said recently “Just talk to me you know, I can understand you if you talk sense.”