I don’t remember when I first met someone with a disability. I have several family members and friends with disabilities and I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 15. Interacting with people with disabilities has never seemed like something out of the norm to me. If you have not interacted much with someone with disabilities before, you may be intimidated by the thought of spending time with them, and often the simple option seems to be to avoid those experiences.As Christians, however, we are called to love one another. Jesus broke social barriers and was in a relationship with everyone around Him: the poor, women, and those with disabilities. We have such a wonderful example of love when we look at how Jesus approached people. He did not discriminate or let fear of offending someone stop Him from loving the people that needed it.
I understand that working with those with disabilities can be intimidating, especially if you have had no experience. Don’t let fear stop you from showing love, though. The church should be the place where inclusion starts, and we are the hands and the feet of Jesus, the moving parts of the church. Inclusion has to start with us. I am in the disability gateway class. We have had several different speakers come and talk to the class about their experiences with disabilities. One question that almost every speaker was asked is, “how can the non-disabled community better serve and be involved with people with disabilities?
The suggestions that our speakers gave us to interact with people with disabilities were: spend time, ask questions, and be patient.
When you meet new people, you have to spend time with them in order to get to know them. At Ability Tree (where I have my work study) I get to know about what the kids like to do, what toys are their favorites, and what drives them crazy. Part of doing that is just spending time with them, seeing that some of them love the music, while others love the blocks, and others love to play tag. It has been so fun to find out how I can best interact with each child in the way that they enjoy most. Something else that our speakers’ said is that those with disabilities wished more people would ask questions about disabilities. If you have a question about someone’s diagnosis or how it has affected them, ask. Questions lead to answers, and the more we know, the more aware we are and the more we can advocate.
I can personally say how important this is. When it comes to my epilepsy, it is so important to have people around me that ask questions. When people ask about what epilepsy is, how it has affected my life and what to do if I had a seizure, it shows me not just that they want to be involved, but they are also better informed and can better advocate.
As you approach friendships and relationships with people with disabilities, be patient. If the person you are spending time with has a disability that affects their speech, listen more closely. Ask them to repeat what they said and maybe move somewhere quieter. Don’t just pretend you understood what they said if you didn’t. You could be missing out on a really good conversation.
I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. Find a way to spend time with someone with disabilities, whether that is here on campus, at your church, or getting involved somewhere like Ability Tree (we would love to have you volunteer). You will find that you gain friendships, grow as a person and experience God’s love in a way that you may not have before.