An article written for BPFNA-Bautistas Por La Paz Crossing Borders series:
In 2009, while in college, I was introduced to a world that, for most of my life, I had been too uncomfortable to embrace—a world that I didn’t understand or see as being worthy of my time and energy. I participated in a summer cross country cycling event to raise money and awareness for people living with disabilities organized by The Ability Experience, Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity’s national philanthropy. That summer, I realized that I had focused solely on the disability for far too long. Too often I could only use the word “can’t.” “He can’t walk.” “She can’t see.” “They can’t speak.”
By spending an entire summer visiting organizations that support and create loving communities for all people, I learned that these folks should not be defined as disabled, challenged, or handicapped; rather, they should be defined simply and beautifully as humans that have different abilities. The image of God in which each of us is made shines through all of us the same way and with the same magnificence.
For the past two and a half years, I have worked as a caregiver in West Virginia and North Carolina. My experience with people living with disabilities has flipped my worldview on its head, both socially and spiritually. I know how little I understand God’s ultimate plans. These experiences have strengthened my understanding of the humanity of all people and my belief that we exist to create a community that allows each of us to reach our fullest God-given potential—a community where all of us can teach and learn from one another. As a caregiver, I have learned that I must embrace and open my heart to being taught just as much, if not more, than I teach.
Ben, an 11-year-old boy with fiery red hair and one of the most cheerful smiles, has continued to reinforce all I have learned. I spend a lot of time with him, and as a result of our time spent together, Ben has taught me that he is no different than any other pre-teen. He’s determined to get his way whether he wants more time spent outside or to watch TV. He loves being on the playground, watching basketball, but most importantly, he craves attention. Like any child, he doesn’t want to be ignored.
These experiences have given me a certain level of comfort around people with disabilities. For others, who may not have had these opportunities, it is awkward and challenging. I offer these ideas when you or your child notice a person with disabilities:
1. Say hello. When a parent catches their child looking at Ben with confusion or discomfort, their immediate response is often to tell their child to “Quit staring!” For me, this is one of the greatest disservices to Ben or any child that is different.
2. Introduce yourself and ask a question. I love it when kids come up to Ben and start asking him questions. Their curiosity is not rude, intruding, or mean. Ben gets to show off his communication device and maybe even make a friend. When asked why he can’t walk, Ben and I brag about how well he swims.
3. Debrief later with your child. We must guide our children to a better understanding of the differences of others so that, as they get older, they will empathize instead of belittle.
As long as we continue to teach our children to ignore people with disabilities, they may never have the opportunity to learn from other’s abilities!