Thursday, November 01, 2007
Curriculum and adults with severe cognitive disabilities
I had a discussion with a leader in disability ministry the other day. We were discussing what curricula might look like for an adult with a severe cognitive disability. The person I spoke with indicated that they will use stuffed animals that the adults can manipulate while they are teaching about the story of Noah's Ark. As I listened, it struck me that the approach was misguided on many levels. Please understand that I bless that person and the work that they are doing, however, I also understand, I think, alternative means to work with that particular population: adults with severe cognitive disabilities. Lets consider a few aspects where I believe this approach is wrong.
First, in all of our interactions with people with disabilities, we should treat them in an age appropriate manner. If we are not age appropriate, we stigmatize people. Adults treated as children are trivialized and dismissed. So the first problem is age appropriateness. When classes for adults without disabilities start using stuffed animals to teach Bible stories, or have adults color pictures, or do whatever else children do but adults don't typically do, when that happens, then I will consider doing that with adults with cognitive disabilities.
Second is the whole story of Noah's Ark. What relevance could this story possibly have to the life of adults with cognitive disabilities? These are people who struggle with the most basic of understanding. Yet we will teach them about Noah, and assume they understand that that is the name of a man who lived a couple of thousand years ago. The assumptions here, boggle the mind. The assumption is that they will generalize the fact that these little stuffed soft things represent real live animals, when we know that a characteristic of people with severe disabilities is that they cannot generalize such information. Need I go on? The animals enter in groups of two...what is a two? They are male and female...what is male and female? The world was destroyed by a flood...what is a flood? Because of the sin in the world...what is a world and what is sin? The disconnection between the story and the life and understanding of a person with a disability is staggering. Yet we dutifully teach the story of the creation, or Noah, or whatever. I remember being in a Sunday school class one time where the lesson was about how David could have killed Saul but didn't, just cutting off a piece of his robe. Or a lesson on the fact that God is eternal. I can barely understand that one myself. That lesson was particularly memorable as when the teacher said "God is eternal" a dear woman with down's syndrome turned to me and said, "What is this God is a turtle stuff?"
When I called the teacher on these things, the response was that "The Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps." So I am to teach with my plan being that God will do a miracle every time because I am unwilling to teach in a way that works with the people at the level they are on. That I should plan for a miracle for their to be any understanding for a severely cognitively disabled person in a Sunday school class.
But you might say, "Well what would you teach about then?"
I am not sure I would deliver any specific content, knowledge to people with severe cognitive disabilities. I think that is part of the problem with the way we do most things at church. Everything is knowledge based. So when it is time to teach the severely disabled people, we have to be knowledge based. Well that is pretty silly to my way of thinking. Maybe I would tell them that Jesus loves you. They may not understand who Jesus is, but to teach a person that someone loves them is a good thing. If a person could only repeat the phrase "Jesus loves you" would be a good lesson to learn. But as I said, I might not even do that. My current efforts in a church program that includes people with severe cognitive disabilities, is to let them know that I love them. That I am glad to see them. That I call them my friend. Then we eat a lot of good food together, and hug each other and enjoy a few minutes together. They learn that they are a part of something where they are loved and they are welcomed.
One man in our group (I have mentioned him elsewhere in this blog) is a great guy named Eddie. Because I know Eddie, I know the few words he speaks. When we are together, I use them with him. So he might initiate a conversation with me, or I with him using his words. So I say to him "Christmas" and he replies "Christmas." He then says "Ho ho ho" making a characteristic gesture, which I repeat. He says "Toys" to which I respond "Toys, you like cars." He responds, "Cars." He is with someone who is listening to him and he is listening to me. It is funny because as I am teaching a lesson to a group of perhaps 70 people, he will leave his seat and come up to me, and we engage in this conversation. He has complete access to me at any time, and we talk about the things that are important to him. In addition, although the topic of our conversation is somewhat juvenile, our conversation is not juvenile. If you couldn't hear what we were talking about, you would just think we are a couple of old friends having a good time talking together. It is interesting that recently he has infused the word "Bible" into his conversation so I am on the lookout for a good picture Bible. He has noticed that people open a book when we are in our group, and they call it a Bible. He wants one too, so he will get one. But not because I plan to impart any Biblical knowledge to him other than that "Jesus loves you" and that "I love you."
I still look to God's Holy Spirit to help, but the assistance is that Eddie will know that I love him and that Jesus loves him. Not that he will be able to engage in Biblical interpretation and application.