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Nov21TueReceiving the gifts of those with developmental disabilities. November 21, 2017 by Major Christine Johnston
If you were to come to Broadview Village on a Friday morning at 9 a.m., you would find a small group of people gathered around a table, enjoying a cup of coffee. “Mmmm … you make good coffee, Major Christine!” Thomas often tells me. Thomas has lived at Broadview, a Salvation Army residential program for people with developmental disabilities in Toronto, for many years. As the chaplain, sitting and chatting with other staff and Thomas every Friday is one of the highlights of my week. I’ve come to cherish the gifts he offers—joy, friendship and kindness.
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But these gifts are often overlooked in a society that values the best and the brightest. We live in a world that has certain parameters for what is considered “normal.” In his book Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, author and professor Thomas E. Reynolds uses the phrase “the cult of normalcy” to describe how our view of what is normal pushes those with impairments, disability or weakness to the margins of our communities—only those within our paradigm of what is normal are accepted into the cult.
Some abnormalities or irregularities are more acceptable than others; for instance, the need for corrective lenses. Although the need for assistance to accomplish day-to-day activities is not what we may consider normal, many people need this kind of help.
Over the years, Canada has seen several changes in how we treat and accommodate people with disabilities. We have gone from shutting people with intellectual disabilities away in institutions to including them in mainstream education and community involvement. Although we have made great strides, you need only to talk to parents or the individuals themselves to know that we are still not where we could be. And faith communities, in general, are lagging behind the rest of society.
There are many reasons why this is the case—some rooted in our beliefs and attitudes, others in a lack of understanding and experience. Too often, whether consciously or unconsciously, we think there is something “wrong” with people with disabilities. We see this attitude in Jesus’ disciples when they came across a man who had been born blind, and asked who sinned, the man or his parents (see John 9:2). Jesus replied that it was neither.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the followers of Christ as one body with many parts, and says “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23). If we ponder what it means for the “weak” to be indispensable, it can turn our world upside down. Where does it leave those of us who find our worth in our intellect, our talents, our ability to make our way in the world independently? What do we have if those things aren’t worth what we thought? Does it mean that people with intellectual disabilities are really on the same level as us? Are they really as valuable?
In her song Wonder, Natalie Merchant touches on our struggle to understand and include those with disabilities. Taking on the voice of a disabled person, she sings, “I am a challenge to your balance.” When someone recently asked what I thought these words meant, I smiled. When we truly encounter those with intellectual disabilities, our balance—all we know to be right and true— is challenged. When we welcome them into our lives, our view of ourselves and others is turned inside out and upside down. We suddenly see our world differently.
But not just differently; I dare say we see it as Christ does. If we are open to it, being with people with disabilities can help us re-evaluate and re-prioritize what is important, and connect in unfamiliar, but more transparent, ways. We might even be lucky enough to be blessed by a prayer we can’t comprehend, be deeply understood by someone we can’t make sense of or experience a joy that can cut through the toughest of days. Don’t we all need these kinds of experiences in our lives? But they are not the things we usually value.
Maybe, in the kingdom of God, those with intellectual disabilities are the strong and we are the weak. What would happen if the powerful leaders in our world looked to the seemingly weak, the seemingly less honourable, to lead us? What if we gave them special honour?
In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable that compares the kingdom of God to a banquet table, saying, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (Luke 14:21). This verse doesn’t call us to merely allow the impaired to come to the banquet table, or make preparations if they come. It calls us to go into the streets and invite them to the feast, to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Vincent van Gogh is quoted as saying, “Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” As we invite people to be part of the community, as we share conversation and presence, we might just smell the sweet aroma of flowers.
Major Christine Johnston is the chaplain at Broadview Village in Toronto. This article is adapted from her presentation at the social services conference in October.
One Body With Many Parts
Suggestions for welcoming people with developmental disabilities into our lives and faith communities:
- Consider disability themes in Luke 14:15-24, Luke 5:17-26 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-26.
- Recognize your own weaknesses.
- Look for opportunities to get to know someone with a developmental disability in your neighbourhood. When you start to pay attention, they will no longer be invisible.
- If someone with a disability enters the doors of your faith community, speak with them as you would anyone else. Say “Hello. How are you?” Introduce yourself.
- Do a little research on developmental disabilities. A quick Google search will turn up plenty of useful information.
- If you are interested in including, welcoming and valuing people with disabilities, check out these practical books: Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J. Newman and Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities by Erik W. Carter.