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

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.



Arthur Seale said...

Does this "God is a turtle" teacher advocate using adult Sunday School materials for Pre-school through 6th grade children? After all, the Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps.

When I taught a pre-school Sunday School class, my overarching goal was for the children to leave the class knowing that Jesus loves them, I loved them, and that Sunday School was a safe place of total acceptance. If they were able to pick up a bit of knowledge in the process, it was a bonus. Some of the other preschool teachers were extremely frustrated because they would fill the time with structured learning and then wondered why the children were bored and didn't learn much.

Anonymous said...

I missed the "God is a Turtle" part. The commentator says that takes the position that all should be welcomed, but the "God is a Turtle" comment indicates that this teacher is not welcomed. When few Churches are willing to have disability programs, why is the flippancy necessary in the comment. I agree that this teacher's approach is misguided and that it should be corrected in a supportive manner.
I also take issue with the fact that pre-schoolers don't need to learn anything. The comment does not specify that this class was a disability pre-school class, so I will not assume that it is. If the goal of Sunday School is to teach children that Jesus loves them isn't wise to support that with examples of Biblical story as well as real life. Is it proper to simply say" Jesus Loves You" and have that be all. God consistently supports His own claims of Love and Mercy by reminding His people of story.
I'm jsut confused at the premise that the best Sunday school class is one that is not structured and that the goal of Sunday School for pre-schoolers is to not be bored.
I think there are other ways to think about things, that's all.

Jeff McNair said...

The critical issue is what should be the focus of a Sunday School class for persons with severe cognitive disabilities. I personally was not addressing pre-school, I was talking about adults. The issue of sharing various stories of evidence of God's love to people makes huge assumptions about persons with severe disabilities. To assume that I will listen to a story about whatever and be able to make the connection to a loving God giving evidence of his love for me through the story may be misguided for some audiences.
I think the disconnect here is the way that persons with very severe cognitive disabilities learn, and what they may be capable of intellectually. They absolutely belong in most settings within the church, however, we must also alter settings to maximize their learning in a particular situation. Particularly the Sunday School class that includes them. It is not all about entertainment, but it is about teaching in a way that really does maximize a persons growth in faith.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent of a 28 year old young woman who has profound cognitive abilities. I got caught up in the age-appropriate "trend" about 10 years ago - and I began practicing it when I returned to school for my degree in community programs for adults with disabilities. During the past several months, after observing programs that are letting people who use wheelchairs for mobibility and have very little cognitive ability, just sit and do nothing, I commend the sunday school teacher who used animals and taught Noah's Ark. She probably has done more for those people than anyone else that week. I certainly agree that adults need to be taught with respect and when you can get an idea across that you love them and that they are an accepted part of a group - you have accomplished a great thing. But, stimulation is so important - when the teacher used the animals -her audience had three of their senses stimulated: vision, hearing, and touch. I agree, they would not be able to generalize the information, but as long as she is getting the message across that Jesus loves them - and that they are accepted - I don't think there was one thing wrong with her lesson. As far as coloring - where was your suggested replacement. They again, are using their senses and doing something - unlike most programs who do nothing with them. I love to color with my children. Does that make me less of any adult? I am a Christian and I do not wish to correct a pastor, but I think we need to realize that some educational trends can actually be damamging - just because they are socially acceptable. Yes, please continue to make these wonderful adults feel accepted and loved, but don't take away the much needed activities they have. I have seen some programs have adults in this population put straws into packaging all day long. Is that being respectful to them? I know I would hate that job. I am currently searching for age-appropriate toys and activities - if I some across some - I will share the sites with you. God bless you for having a ministry to our adults with disabilities - we need many more!

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion my dear friends who are wanting to share Christ with people who are more like than different from us, but who likely have limited cognitive and conceptual understanding. I had a brother (now in heaven sitting at Jesus' feet), with Down Syndrome, and am a former special education teacher, college instructor and School Psychologist. In addition to growing up with our Jim, and watching him grow, learn and then decline with dementia, I have been involved in teaching/coordinating an Adult Special Needs Sunday School program for about 15 years.

Once again I am searching for an "age appropriate" curriculum for our friends with cognitive disabilities, because most volunteer teachers need to have prepared lessons that are easy to teach. We have been very blessed to have been able to use curricula developed by Friendship Ministries who are in the process of developing new curricula including more current music and videos.

As most of our students are aging, and losing some of their physical and mental abilities, I have come to think that "age appropriate" isn't as important as "developmentally appropriate". As I am teaching Bible stories, I often intersperse the lesson presentation with questions that require the students to respond with something that they DO know and CAN DO (e.g. "How many disciples did Jesus call? 12. Let's count to 12. Choral counting"). Coloring and cut and paste crafts are things that our friends can do (sometimes requiring some hand-over-hand assistance). I realize that some people would say that this is not "age appropriate" but when our friend's eyes light up because they are engaged and can participate, I feel like this is the approach that is meeting their needs for the moment. Is it disrespectful? I don't think so. I know that my eyes would glaze over if I tried to read a theoretical physics text but when I have some prior knowledge and can bring that to the experience, I am engaged and motivated.

Every Sunday, we must adjust most published lessons to the conceptual level of our friends. We search for simpler, shorter praise songs with just a few repetitive lyrics. Making such adjustments is just part of good teaching for all students of all ages and abilities.

I am guessing that many people involved in ministry to adults with limited cognitive ability come away from the experience feeling that they have received more than they have given. I praise and thank the Lord for this and pray blessings on everyone who makes sacrifices to be involved in this type of ministry. Laura, Nebraska