“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Friday, June 24, 2005

Beards and Pipes

I was provided with the opportunity to write an instructor's manual for perhaps the premier textbook in moderate to severe disabilities, Martha Snell and Fredda Brown's Instruction of Students with Severe Disabilities. In the edited text, there is a chapter on the "Promise of Adulthood" by Dianne and Philip Ferguson, well known experts in the field of special education who are not only professors of special ed, they are parents of an adult son with disabilities.

Anyway, in their chapter they tell the following story.
"We remember working in a large state institution for people with severe disabilities some 25 years ago. This institution closed in June 1998, but at the time, a number of people who worked there had apparently gotten only part of the message about treating people as adults. As a result, over a period of months, all the adult men on the ward grew beards and smoked pipes. Nothing else changed in their lives to encourage their personal autonomy, much less their membership in the community. The beards and pipes were simply empty symbols of adulthood that had no grounding in the daily lives of indignity and isolation that the men continued to lead."

This quote made me think of experiences I have had at church. I remember giving a talk about poverty to a group of adults with mental disabilities and a homeless man. I had an inkling of what it was like to be living in poverty from some of my life experiences, however, many of the members of my audience were living in poverty on a daily basis and had been for years.

I guess the point is, I can think that I am doing something which reflects a change in my perspective, a change in my understanding of something, but is what I am doing really reflect a growth of understanding or only that I have so much further to go. When I go to church I hear people talking about God's love, and caring for your neighbor, and the widow's mite, and love for the poor, but I don't see a lot of poor people, as least disabled poor people at church. And when they do show up, they are unexpected. It's as if the congregation is taken aback, "We didn't expect to see you here" or even "What are you doing here?"

The men in the institution had beards and pipes but no autonomy, and nothing had really changed. But the people allowing them to smoke and grow their beards probably thought they had reached a new stage of understanding. Our "beards and pipes" in churches are that we speak of care for the poor, or God's love, or that we are all equal in God's sight, yet there are a lot of people who might be equal to me in God's sight but are never in my line of sight.

Bob Bennett, one of my favorite singers has a song called "The doing of the thing." In talking about helping those in need, he describes how he could, "mistake the very song I sing for the doing of the thing." What do we in churches mistake for the "doing of the thing?"

The retarded people have beards and pipes. Thats great.


1 comment:

Amanda Brady said...

You stated in Beards and Pipes that most churches are almost surprised when a person with a disability shows up. When I was a Sophomore in college, I wrote a research paper on discrimination against people with disabilities and focused on how the Christian Church as a whole treats people with disabilities. I wish I still had the paper but one thing I remember from my research is the overwhelming sense from the research that churches designed their buildings and their programs to keep people with disabilities from participating. The reason given in the articles I read was that the Christian Church wanted it's worship services and other programs to give them the illusion that all was right in the world. When a person with a disability came into their building, the church members had to admit that there was imperfection in the world. As sad as it is, that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many people with disabilities who don't want to fight for their right to attend church and they never return, many never finding the Peace that passes understanding. All because the church members couldn't find the understanding that would give them peace in the face of the unknown.