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God's Heart for Individuals with Disabilities

February 14, 2018

 

I want to tell you a little story of the beautiful impact that we can have on other people. I vividly remember standing at this past year’s graduation for Next Steps, Vanderbilt’s college program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Tears streamed down my face as the five graduates walked across the stage. I do not cry easily, but the thought of these students leaving campus was a bittersweet moment in my heart: joy for their future endeavors and sadness at the thought of them leaving. These students have become an important part of my Vanderbilt experience, positively impacting each and every one of my days. My friends in Next Steps are some of the kindest, most encouraging, and most loving people I have ever met. They inspire me to be more of myself, to dance and sing freely, and to be beautifully me each and every day, and for that I could not be more grateful. I am made better by these individuals, as they show me what it means to love resiliently and abundantly.

 

There are hundreds of students at Vanderbilt with disabilities and millions more around the world. A disability is an inability to do something, but it does not reflect the wonderful gifts and abilities that these individuals possess. Disabilities can range from learning disabilities like dyslexia to more comprehensive disabilities like Down Syndrome, which make some tasks and things in life more difficult. People with disabilities have real emotions, hopes, goals, dreams, and interests, just like anybody else. A disability is a part of a whole person along with other characteristics and talents. People with disabilities are not simply charity cases. They can become good friends because they are human, too. Some people with disabilities can communicate through speech, while others cannot. Some people with disabilities are able to learn at the same pace as typically developing students, while others may need extra support. However, “all of us have an intense desire to be loved and nurtured”, those with disabilities included [1].

 

Disabilities have been around for ages. A missing limb or a wheelchair may grab your attention or turn you away in fear. It is scary to see things that we cannot understand fully, so we often focus our eyes on the differences, trying to reconcile our minds and mental concepts into equilibrium or turn away, not willing to look brokenness in the face. The way that the world views individuals with disabilities is changing but is often tainted by fear of others’ differences. In her book, Same Lake, Different Boat, author and mother Stephanie Hubach proposes three main worldviews of disability: the historical view, the postmodern view, and the Biblical view [2]. I will discuss how these three worldviews embody two extremes of how individuals with disabilities are viewed and treated in society.

 

Slowly becoming more outdated with the growth of the disability rights movement, the historical view is one that views people with disabilities as “an abnormal part of life in a normal world.” [3] Individuals with disabilities are seen as anomalies and outcasts in a society of people who are considered relatively normal. Institutions commonly housed individuals with disabilities, and opportunities for them were few and far between. Though a popular view for a time, the historical view does not recognize the worth and value of individuals with disabilities. Many individuals with disabilities have done wonderful things, and this view does not focus on each and every unique individual’s abilities and contributions to this world beyond their disabilities.

 

One of my favorite stories is that of a girl named Kayla Montgomery. She ran track in high school, despite her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis (MS), which caused her to lose all of the feeling in her legs. She became one of the fastest runners in her state in high school, and she continues to run here in Nashville on the cross-country team at Lipscomb University. Her disability does not account for all of her unique abilities and is just one example of the growing lack of credibility in the historical view. Individuals with disabilities have much to offer to this world, and people like Kayla and many more show that each and every day. Despite the fact that this worldview is becoming more and more outdated, negative perspectives and views of disability continue to pervade our society. This is evident in the way that kids point and people stare when they do not understand, but understanding and proximity breeds compassion, and because of this, two other views have emerged [4].

The postmodern view states that disabilities are not an inadequacy or a flaw but a form of neurodiversity, or simply a natural variation of the human brain. This view upholds that “disability is a normal part of life in a normal world”. It is the idea that disabilities are neither a problem nor a bad trait but, rather, something to be celebrated. The neurodiversity movement began with a focus on individuals with autism and the belief that a cure was not necessary because some individuals with autism view their disability as a core part of their identity; they believe that it should not be seen as a problem to be fixed but something to be accepted. This view is well-intended and argues that individuals with autism should not have to change to conform to society, but that society should be accepting towards these individuals and welcome them in as they are, not as they “ought” to be [5]. This is an excellent argument; however, it has a few flaws.

 

The greatest hole in this theory is the negative symptoms associated with disability. For example, autism is considered a psychological disorder with diagnostic criteria that includes repetition, fixed interests on particular topics, and difficulty understanding social cues. Many mothers of children with autism struggle to connect with their children, and these kids often have difficulties making new friends. Emotional breakdowns and sensory overloads are also common in individuals with autism. Some describe having autism as being overly sensitive to the stimulus in the environment around them. While many of us can tune out noises to focus on one thing, many individuals with autism lack that ability, leading them to hear the whirring of the wind, the typing of the keys, the murmuring of whispers in the classroom, the quiet whir of the lighting above and the air ventilators, and the lecture all screaming at once and unfiltered into a cloud of noises. This is one of the reasons why many individuals with autism prefer routine and sameness and self-stimulation as ways to cope with the overwhelming input of sensory information [6].

 

Furthermore, not being able to understand visual cues may lead to bullying from other children, and difficulty in communicating socially with others makes it challenging to connect with friends on a deeper level. One of the unique parts of being a human is that we are relational beings who long to connect, and when that ability is broken, it longs to be repaired. Individuals with Down Syndrome, for instance, have an extra chromosome and often have increased rate of heart conditions. These are not good things in and of themselves, and if our society decided that disabilities were a natural part of the genetic variances of the human brain, we would lack an unconditional love that reaches out to that which is broken. In accepting this view, we miss the need to help individuals suffering through aspects of their disabilities: the medical conditions that often accompany disability, the difficulty in communicating and connecting with others, and the pain of one’s inability. It takes acknowledgement of differential treatment and differences in order to most effectively lead to long lasting change.

 

There is also a third view that Hubach proposes, which I believe serves as the answer to how we truly ought to treat individuals with disabilities in our society. This is called the Biblical view, which states that “disability is a normal part of life in an abnormal world”. The Biblical view shares aspects of the postmodern worldview, but it places a higher standard on the definition of love. Hubach writes,

 

“... everything in human experience is affected by the fall. On every level of every dimension of the human experience there is a mixture of both the blessedness of creation and the brokenness of the fall. By God’s common grace, we participate in the damaged but not obliterated blessings of being created in God’s image and being endowed with purpose. At the same time our experience is permeated throughout with the effects of brokenness. This is true for every person. Yet much of our energies in life are directed toward denying this reality.” [7]

 

The Biblical worldview says that disabilities are a normal part of living in a world that is broken. It takes a very honest view of disability, recognizing that it was not part of God’s original design. Christians believe that God made humankind in His image and with a particular design; and that when the first two human beings–Adam and Eve–sinned, the whole earth was sent into disarray. Christians believe that God will one day restore humanity to the way He intended it, giving those who believe in Him new bodies that are eternal and cannot be broken or afflicted with the pain and sorrows of this world.

 

Many of us believe that inclusion of individuals with disabilities into each aspect of society matters; it is even federally mandated in American law. However, Christianity takes this belief a step further and in a different direction. Inclusion, according to Dr. Erik Carter, a nationally recognized special education professor at Vanderbilt, simply implies that people are together in one space. A better word for the goal of individuals with disabilities in communities and society is belonging. Belonging is the idea that if someone with a disability were missing, it would be noticed, and they would be missed [8].

 

Upon first glance, the Biblical worldview may seem grim, but it offers a more comprehensive and unconditional love. When viewed as a part of human variation, disabilities are undermined and services may not be given to the extent they need. Compassion is not fully drawn out in the way that it ought to be for the difficulties and suffering that these individuals have to endure because of disabilities. However, Jesus offers a different lens. He sees all of the brokenness of disability and the loss, and he weeps with us. He reaches out and sees, and loves the person not beyond or despite their disabilities, but through and with and in that.

 

The Biblical worldview does not undermine individuals with disabilities but sees them through a different lens. It discourages people from treating others based on the value they have to offer society or on their normality or perceived lack thereof. Christianity does not seek the normalization of individuals with disabilities in order to love them because the Biblical worldview has a different reason for loving. It stems from the belief that each individual is created in the image of God and is wholly loved. Author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis said, “God loved us not because we were loveable, but because He is love.” [9] Therefore, the foundation for loving others and building relationships with individuals with disabilities comes from the belief that none of us is deserving of this grace but because we have been loved, we are able to more freely love others.

 

Individuals with disabilities reflect God’s love and character in so many ways. They are often vulnerable and incredibly resilient and abounding in their love. People who have disabilities are not defined by their disabilities but by their identity as loved by the God. In fact, the Bible says, “… those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” (1 Corinthians 12:22).8 This verse references the body of Christ, or the community of Christians around the world. It implies that people with disabilities, who may appear outwardly weaker, are indispensable. People with disabilities are necessary in our society because they are people who spread deep love in our community. People with disabilities can teach us new ways to communicate and connect beyond words, such as in a simple laugh or a smile. People with disabilities teach us how to be more patient and to look at people for their hearts [10]. They inspire us to love, to live, and to shine.

 

In the words of Wheaton College student, Edie Heipel:

 

“…the mere experience of life is precious. Any stage of life has value. Any human being can feel the coldness of rain against a lilac petal, and if not that – embrace the warmth of the sun beating down upon them, and if not that – hear strains of music envelop their soul, and if not that – smell burnt sugar, and if not that – see the light blue sky that stretches on forever. And if none of these things remain, still lies the truth that each heartbeat and every breath is what gives a person his or her worth: the touch of life that God created for a valuable purpose. Valued beyond measure for a reason; a purpose simply to be: A life.” [11]

 

To God, life is valuable simply because He created it and said that it was good (Genesis 1:31). This changes the way that we ought to treat individuals with disabilities. The historical accounts of Jesus reveal a God who came close to the broken and loved to heal people. The Biblical view of disability is one that captures how to love people regardless of what they have to offer. It is about a God who draws near to us and longs for more of us; a full and abundant life of love that reaches into our brokenness, weeps with us, and gives the hope of healing, even if it is not until the other side of heaven."

 

References

 

1. Raghunathan, R., Ph.D. (2014, January 08). The Need to Love. Retrieved January 14, 2018.

2. Hubach, S. O. (2006). Same lake, different boat: coming alongside people touched by disability. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.

3. Ibid.

4. Morley, G. (2015, May 20). Kayla Montgomery: Young runner's brave battle with MS. Retrieved January 14, 2018.

5. What Is The Neurodiversity Movement and Autism Rights? (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2018.

6. Robison, J. E. (2017, April 05). The Controversy Around Autism and Neurodiversity. Retrieved January 14, 2018.

7. Hubach, (2006).

8. Carter, E., Ph.D., & Bethune, L., Ph.D. (2017, December 05). Session 14: What We Know Works for Inclusion, Relationships, and Belonging. Lecture presented at SPEDS3312-01: Procedures in Transition to Adult Life in Payne Building 105, Nashville.

9. A quote by C.S. Lewis. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2018. Published by Goodreads Inc.

10. Carlson, T. (2014, January 10). 10 Things The World Can Learn From People With Disabilities. Retrieved January 14, 2018.

11. Heipel, E. (15, August 03). Facebook [The intrinsic value of life].

 

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