Last fall, I received an email that raised an important question about Evangelistic efforts to people with disabilities. The question was born out of some discussion about Young Life and it’s efforts in this area (Caperneum).
Here’s some of what they wrote:
“ I apologize if this is a long e-mail.
Well I came across your blog when I was googling YL stuff. To give you a little bit of background, I recently graduated from a faith based college but I only spent two years there. It was quite a cultural shock since I was raised Catholic. This college didn’t have you sign anything, so there were a fair amount of non-believers at the school. Near the end of my last year, I was really thinking of writing some sort of book that highlights some of the bad stuff that goes behind the scenes and Christian schools/camps.”
“I also wanted to add a little bit of my personal experience in there as well. I also was raised with a disability (cerebral palsy to be specific) but its a very mild case of it. I also came to experience a fair amount of super fake Christians at the college as well. I personally think my disability had a lot to do with it. I’m not sure how much you touched on disabilities and Christianity in your blog, but I personally think it would interesting to explore the dynamic between the two. Since moving back I’ve been hesitant to join a church because of what I had experienced with the people at my college so it’s been a little bit of, well do I still believe in the “God” they were preaching at the college, and are all Christians going to treat me this way?”
First off, thank you for sharing a bit of your story and about your disability. It’s a topic close to my heart because I have a child with a mental disability. If you read early on, here at the ChristianAgnostic, then you may remember a series of posts called Staring Into the Abyss. It was a three part series, chronichling the birth of my youngest and his struggle to come home from the hospital alive. You can read them here, here, and here if you care to know more about his story.
While all ends well and he recovers to come home with us….it’s not the end of the story. You see, right before he was discharged, my wife and I were informed that we needed to sit down with his doctor. We assumed it was just to go over all the relevant details before sending us off unto the sunset for a happily ever after.
Instead, we were given a quick medical lesson on the dangers of Oxygen and the possible side effects of Cerebal Palsy. For nearly two months, the only reason our son was able to survive was because of the feeding tubes and Oxygen pumps that helped sustain him. What our doctor explained, is that Oxygen is actually poisonous over it’s normal 22% level and can cause permanent side effects and even brain damage (Cerebal Palsy).
This was quite a shock. We assumed that we were out of the woods, and now, just as we are about to punch out and head home, we we’re being told that our son may have permanent physical and mental disabilities. We were crushed.
One of the issues, was pyhiscal. He was not responding normally to the physical check ups and his legs and arms were unable to extend normally. We were told by a nurse that she doubted if our son would ever walk. I couldn’t beleive my ears. We had come all this way, cheated death three times, and now I was bringing a son home who would be in wheel chair for life? Not that I wouldn’t have done it, but it was just such unexpected news and it hit us like a cement truck.
But wait, there’s more, said the doctor…not only is it possible that his physical abilities will be limited, but there was a large chance that he would suffer from mental disabilities as well. We had heard of Cerebral Palsy, but he explained that it was a general term and that it could manifest itself in a wide range. On the extreme range was a vegetable like mental state, on the mild side, disabilities like dyslexia or ADD might manifest as he grew up.
We were floored and tried to digest the news. When I got home from the hospital, that day, I dropped into my bed and wept and moaned so loud, that my other children came running started crying too. I tried to stop, I didn’t want to upset my kids, but I couldn’t help it. I was in too much shock and overwhelmed by emotion.
As the Years Rolled On
In his first days home, my son had physical therapy sessions and was soon able to extend his arms and legs. He actually began to walk before he was nine months old. Yes, to everyone’s amazement, he was developing faster physically than most children that were born without incident. His brushes with death didn’t slow him down and he soon began to walk, run, and climb. In fact, he is so adept physically that sometimes we joke about the original prognosis that he wouldn’t even walk.
I am amazed whenever I see him run like a deer and remember back to that day we were told that he probably never walk!!!
But on the other side of it, we did notice that he seemed “off” to us. He was slow to speak, and then when he did begin, it was almost a compulsive monologue of quotations from various cartoons he had watched. We had him evaluated and he was diagnosed with Autism. We’ll never know if the autism was linked to his early struggles for life (as an aside, I do not believe there is any merit to the idea that autism is caused by vaccinations) but the warning that he might have a mental disability was coming to pass.
Autism:What’s It All About?
For the last decade, we have become well acquainted with autism and it’s many forms. For our son, he is very functional and is able to be in a normal classroom setting for 90% of his school day. He does have some support, but it is more on the social side of things that he fluctuates. He can be hyperactive and was a risk for running straight out our door, down the block, and out onto the highway. It was scary because he was both fast and unaware at the great danger he was putting himself into. Somehow, we managed to help him learn boundaries and some basic safety.
I could go on and on about his unique struggles and talents as it relates to autism, but I’ll leave that to move on the question of Evangelism to folks (like my son) that have a disabilitiy.
In my son’s case, another effect of his autism is his extreme literal thinking. He struggles mightily to understand metaphoriocal speech and exxageration. Forms of speech that you or I might instinctively know were just examples, he might take as literal truth. The other struggle, is that once he has an idea in his head, very often he can not rid himself of it without flying off the handle emotionally or having a “meltdown” as we call it. Any parent dealing with an autistic child will know exactly what I mean by this. It is extremely frustrating and takes great effort and patience to help him move beyond his current thoughts or expectations.
This scares me when I think of how he might try and apply the Bible and some of it’s sayings. What would happen if someone told him he needed to read the Bible and obey it’s teaching? How would he react to Jesus when he says to cut off your hand or foot if it causes you to sin?
To you or I, we may try and reason though such a saying. But to my son, his disability can hamper his reasoning skills and get him stuck on a horrific thought with lasting consequences if he follows through with literal obedience.
I’ve rambled on and have many more thoughts on the subject…but I would seriously like to hear from folks that have disabilities and how the Evangelistic efforts of Christians have affected them or their loved ones with a disability.
Thanks again for the emails and the awesome question!