A few years ago I went to speak about our Good News Group at a retreat for pastoral workers. These people gave up their time to visit people in their homes who couldn’t get to church. Many were retired clergy and gave communion and company to the elderly and disabled. One of the group said to me at the beginning…”Why do you bother teaching the Bible to people who have the minds of a 3 year old?”
Now, after choking on my tea, I introduced him to my friend S, who has Down’s Syndrome and who was there to deliver the talk with me. I didn’t answer his question there and then but as we gave our presentation, it was clear that teaching the Bible to people with learning disabilities was very much worth it. And in the end, his mind was changed.
But it’s that attitude…’the mind of a 3 year old’ that I come across in other people too. (Firstly I think, how many 3 year olds do you know? They are lively, curious, active, always learning) but it is wrong to give a mental age of a child to an adult. Really wrong.
Yesterday I was at the funeral of one of our GNG members. It was so positive and full of hope because we all remembered his life and his faith. But what struck me was that he was sent to a special school (which did him a lot of good) but nowadays he’d have coped well in a mainstream school. He was intelligent, had brilliant knowledge about his favourite football teams and musicians, he wrote songs and knew so much about the Bible. Despite his physical degenerative condition, he never complained, always made his carers laugh and loved his wife of almost 30 years openly and affectionately. Yet, I just know there are people whose response to a death of someone with disabilties, who needed constant care (and the funding for that care) is to say it was a blessing, that he isn’t suffering anymore.
We devalue people with learning disabilities ALL the time. From my work in schools where the ‘special needs kids’ are seen as a problem to be solved, to our society that sees adults with learning and physical disabilties as a burden on the state.
But there are different ways of being intelligent than passing GCSEs, there are different ways of contributing to this world than being economically independent. The people with learning disabilties and with autism that I know enrich my life beyond measure. They are funny, intelligent, able, have ideas and imagination. Those who cannot speak can have a lot to say if you take the time to listen. I could tell you every child, every adult I know who has a label of learning disability, Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Aspergers, Cerebral Palsy and anything else, and tell you about their personality, what they are good at and why they are great to know. In the GNG we have made getting to know and spend time with our members the priority. This has enabled us to see ABILITY not disability. We have tried to enable each person to serve using their gifts. S gives out the badges and taught herself to read everyone’s names. J runs the computer desk, and E gives out the instruments every week. G is so observant she notices everything, she also does puppets for which she is learning all the puppet tricks we can teach her. J, who doesn’t speak, sits humming and twiddling, has a way of looking at you out of the side of his eyes. He brings a gift of seeing the world through the sensory, as we share those experiences with him.
None of these people function as a 3 year old. None of these have stopped growing and learning. All of them have personalities and gifts that are different. They are adult people who should be respected as such. In church, especially. We do the body of Christ a great disservice when we infantilise adults with disabilties. We should not patronise then, assume they cannot do things, speak about them over their heads, consider them a burden on their families, think it is a blessing if they die sooner. This stuff happens. It is wrong.
Of course then there are changes we need to make. From finding ways of including children in our Sunday Schools and Yourh work (not just by putting them in with the younger children) to finding them their rightful place in our adult churches. We may need to think hard and have a plan. We may need to do things completely differently. We should get some training and support. We should being seeing people with learning disabilties as having infinite potential…they’re not all going to be Paralympians (but do enjoy those games as they are brilliant!) but because I believe that’s how Jesus sees them. And would you argue with him?
Here’s a couple of training opportunities coming up soon…. Hope to meet you there!