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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hello from Cape Town!

Well, for the next week or so, I am in Cape Town South Africa at the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disability. I am doing 3 presentations, 2 related to church and disability issues. I am also hoping to be involved in the start up of a division of the organization devoted to issues of church and disability. I can tell you that after 24 hours here, I have only seen one disabled man, who I gave my change to, walking on crutches. I am very excited to meet Africans and learn about disability here.

So, should you make a comment and I am a bit slow in posting it, please be patient. I will share more of my experiences here later.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beginning traditions

While working on a brief article for the the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability's Religion and Spirituality division newsletter, it occurred to me that we, as the Christian church in the world, are in the position of beginning traditions relative to the place of persons with disabilities within the church. To date, our traditions have been largely exclusive and ignoring as if there were few if any people with, for example, intellectual disabilities. However, as we begin to move into a new time of inclusive practices that will literally change many aspects of the way we do church, I think it is important to consider how we are informing the models we use which will ultimately become our traditions.

Will we move of on a direction where we totally segregate people with intellectual disabilities from the traditional church as if they were some pariah, claiming we are doing what is best for them? I hope not. If we do, people without disabilities will continue to grow up in churches without any experience with people with disabilities. The church will also largely remain unchanged rather than becoming all it might be by including essential parts (1 Corinthians 12:23).

Will we borrow our practices from the public schools, instutiting inclusion classes within the Sunday School program? I hope not. If we do, we are building programs with the same problems that the public schools face (one reason why some research indicates that only 10% of schools have inclusive classrooms in the US). In addition, we are following a knowledge based model, which may not only not be the best for those with intellectual disabilities, it may not be the best for any of us, children or adults. Social integration has largely NOT been the result of public school inclusion programs.

Will we borrow our practices from psychology, expanding the pastoral counseling role? I hope not. If we do we will perpetuate that people with disabilities have something wrong with them, when they are just perhaps not as typical (in terms of intellect, the manner in which they move about the community, or the way they perceive the world). There is a difference, in my mind, between having something WRONG and having something different. We as the church can lead the way in helping the world to see people as having differences not wrongs.

All this is to say, that Lord willing, we will be looking at the practices of the church in 100 years, and wonder how they got the way they are relative to persons with disabilities. I would advise the church to step back and look at the way they do all programs. How would the presence of persons with disabilities cause those programs to be different? Perhaps that is the way they should have been in the first place.

We can literally do just about anything, unrestrained, without limits in terms of the manner in which we will include those who have been excluded in the past. Lets dream big, go deep in prayer and come up with crazy solutions that have never been dared in the past. Lets think about the ideal situation and plan for that. I will admit that too often I have only dreamed as big as what I think I will be permitted to do by my church, or those in leadership over me. I have not pushed the envelope as I might. As a result, I fear that the traditions that I have been involved in developing within my church will be soon outdated. Not because I didn't have bigger dreams, but rather because I settled for what I would be permitted to do, not fighting for what I had dreamed.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Unencumbered by knowledge...

Kathi and I have been getting lots of emails about the new movie Tropic Thunder regarding comments made in the movie that demean persons with intellectual disabilities.  I suspect that the movie is easily missed, however, it is important to note that the jokes are jokes and comments that many people routinely make.  I don't think that the movie is leading the culture in this area, but more likely is reflecting the culture.  I am confident that many people have either heard or hear others referring to someone as a "retard" or "retarded" but perhaps have not given it much thought.  But such jokes are easy.  Another post on this weblog has addressed this issue along with the presence of a video of an amazing speech that I would refer you to.

Although I too am angered by the jokes, they are reflective of a larger problem of speaking about things about which they have no knowledge.  Back in May of 2004, I related on this blog the story of David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles on Cheers and Frazier the Cheers spinoff.  He was back then a spokesperson for alzheimers disease.  Back then I wrote the following.
By contrast, David Hyde Pierce (Niles Crane on the television program Frazier) has been a strong advocate for persons with alzheimer's disease. Recently, on the occasion of his birthday, there had been attacks on President Reagan by comedians regarding his alzheimers disease. Once again, without entering into the policital fray (I have no idea what Mr. Pierce's political affiliation is) he stated that there are two types of people who make jokes about others with alzheimers. First, there are those who have never experienced the disease. Wisely he says he hopes they will continue to be able to make such unkind jokes as that would imply they have never experienced the disease. May they live on without ever having to face the ongoing debilitation and humiliation of one you deeply love. Second, are those who make jokes to try to ease their own pain or the pain of their loved ones who do have the disease. 
Now, I wouldn't compare life with a person with alzheimer's disease with a life with a person with mental retardation/intellectual disabilities.  But the principle illustrated by Mr. Hyde Pierce's comments fits perfectly.  We will often make jokes about things that we don't understand.  

We will also make pronouncements, at times about things we know nothing about.  Recently the radio talk show host, Michael Savage, made ridiculous comments about autism and children with autism.  Savage is know for his inflammatory rhetoric about political matters, however, at least in this case, he ventured into areas about which he knows nothing.  I have had my heart broken by the insensitive people in grocery stores with their comments about controlling one's child as a parent struggles with their screaming child with autism.  They have no idea of the courage it sometimes takes for a parent to even take a child with autism to a grocery store, only to be criticized by onlookers, potentially empowered by comments from some radio personality who literally has no idea what he is talking about.  I have even heard the respected commentator, Michael Medved make comments about homeless mentally ill people and how they need to be in institutions.  I would easily embrace nearly any inconvenience they could cause me if it meant keeping them out of institutions that can be so horrible.  Are there people who could benefit from increased supervision of one kind or another?  Of course there are.  However, I might advocate for such supervision, not so they would be gotten out of my face, but more because of the manner in which the quality of their lives would be improved.  

But as a friend of mine, Dr. Bob Henderson once related to me, 
"Unencumbered by knowledge, they speak with great authority."
Once we do see the life of a person with intellectual disabilities or experience the love they give to others, we change our perspective.  Once we see the way in which they are discriminated against by society, we should change our perspective.  We begin to see these things as issues of social justice.  That is, jokes that perpetuate negative stereotypes about innocents are working against social justice for those who are the butt of such jokes.  So I think the issues are worthy of attending to and are worthy of bringing to the attention of those who make comments in the name of making someone laugh that demean others who are largely defenseless.  We literally demean people and support negative attitudes about people in the name of "fun".

I will not be seeing this movie or any movie that demeans persons with intellectual disabilities. I will not be viewing any television program that demeans persons with intellectual disabilities.
I will not be viewing any "entertainment" which uses the demeaning of persons with intellectual disabilities as a vehicle for laughter at their expense.


Saturday, August 09, 2008

Choosing to be "smart"

I just finished reading the book Just Courage by Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission.  He makes the following comments (pp. 118-119).
The fact is, when people choose to be brave instead of smart, their courage is generally so threatening to those who are smart rather than brave that they end up being maligned, not congratulated.  This is what the Bible says we can expect... So sometimes we have to decide: Are we going to love, or are we going to look smart?  Because loving the needy doesn't look smart.  And, sadly, in much of our culture this is one of our deepest fears: looking like a fool, naive, unsophisticated, a little too earnest, a looser... Generally, there is no wealth and very little regard in helping the needy... Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love.
That is often the issue with ministry to people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities, the ones that I believe God has called me to serve.  How is is smart to be in ministry to people with mental retardation?  But Haugen asks the real question that is behind a lot of the disinterest in devalued people.  He says, "Are we going to love, or are we going to look smart?"  Is it smart to minister to people who aren't going to "get better."  What will people think of me if many of my friends are mentally handicapped?  Will I be the victim of some form of sympathy stigma?  I do run that risk.  It is true that "Generally, there is no wealth and very little regard in helping the needy."  To quote A League of Their Own, "Its supposed to be hard!  If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it."

But there is the potential that a life will be transformed through love.  The change to bet on is the change in your own life.  The love learned is the love you learn.  But they are not always easy lessons, so be prepared to be maligned.  

It is also interesting how people will dismiss themselves from work with the needy, particularly those who are needy with intellectual disabilities.  It is funny to most special educators, because the typical line you hear when you tell someone that you are a special ed teacher is that they say, "I don't have the patience for that."  Not, "I would like to learn the patience for that because I hear patience is involved" or even, "I have heard that you need to be patient.  Is that true?"

Significance of a life can be defined in a variety of ways.  But I think most often significance is determined on the basis of what you did for others.  And others, is a pretty open ended criteria.  People respect a person who gave their life for the needy.  So why aren't we doing more of that if that is what is remembered.  People will sometimes lament the time others spent trying to make money, but rarely the time spent with people.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008


There are several of us who are interested in developing a web page that lists model programs serving persons with disabilities nationally. There may come a day when a service of technical assistance and evaluation could be offered to programs, but for the moment, we would just like to list programs sent to us.

We have purchased a website called http://disabilityministry.com where we hope to list these programs in addition to providing links to other websites and materials that would be useful to those in disability ministry.

Our hope is that you will forward the following information about your program to us for us to post on this new website. Please provide the following:
Church Name/Program Name
Website address
Email address to contact regarding the program
50 word program description

As we begin receiving this information, we will begin posting the list of programs. It is our hope that this website will be both an encouragement to churches to get into the disability ministry business, and also a place for people to find a ministry in their geographical area to attend or to visit as an example for them to start their own ministry. If you know of a ministry in your area, please ask them to send their information to us so we can list it.

Please send the above information to:
List as the "Subject" disabilityministry.com

Soon we will begin to list ministries there.

May God bless our efforts.

What to do? How to begin?

I recently had the opportunity to teach a portion of the second Joni and Friends certificate program to be offered by them at the Christian Institute on Disability at Agoura Hills, Ca. What a great group of folks participated in the training. There was one person, however, who felt very put off by the things I was saying. The feeling was that I was just attacking the church. We talked and I think the person came to understand my perspective, that I was trying to improve the church's outreach to persons with disabilities by challenging those in attendance who in many ways self-selected to be taught important principles about developing ministries. As I shared with the one person who was having difficulty, "If you are in your church, I will praise your efforts. However, as soon as you enter the training, it is my job to help you to mold your ministry into the best it can be, using what are (in my opinion) best practices. I will therefore be critical." There are things we can do which do represent best practices, and there are things we can do that are not best practices.

For example, if we develop curriculum that implies that adults with disabilities are children, we are wrong because they are not children, and we demean them by communicating to them that they are children. I have been teaching adults with intellectual disabilities in ministry settings for 30 years, and I have yet to find the need to develop cutesy stories that I would never use for adults who are not disabled in order to educate those who have intellectual disabilities. We teach from the same Bible that the nondisabled adults use, studying the same passages, generally, that they study.

Now I am circumspect in the things that I teach because I know of the intellectual capacity of my audience. So for example, I don't see the need to teach the story about how David had the opportunity to kill Saul but didn't (1 Samuel 24:4) because that is irrelevant to their lives. I can teach about doing unto others (Matthew 7:12) and therefore make the same point in a relevant way. The Psalms, for example, provide a wealth of information that is entirely relevant to anyone, including adults with intellectual disabilities. For example, this past week, I taught on Psalm 116, asking the group whether God had ever saved any of them from death (v3)? There were those in auto accidents, those in hospital for surgeries and so on and they easily made the connection that God had saved them. Or had any of them been delivered from tears, or God kept them from stumbling into sin (v8). We then moved to verse 13 that asks "How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?" The answer is in verse 14, "I will fulfill my vows to the Lord." We talked about the fact that we have given our lives to Jesus. So that means we will try to do what is right, to do what Jesus would want us to do.

I don't need stories that are juvenile in nature to convey these truths to my audience. I talk to them as adults and they respond to me to the degree they are able as adults. And people will rise to the occasion. This past Sunday, for example, we were having a time of prayer for people in our group. One of our members is a 4th year medical student at Loma Linda university. He mentioned how he had important upcoming exams and wanted someone to pray for him. One of our men, a regular attender, who I will tell you just to give you an idea of the level of his disability, spends his days in adult day care, immediately stood up and moved to the side of the medical student. He prayed, "God take care of him" ending with a loud "AMEN." He has learned how to pray for others who he is able to perceive are in need. He has been treated as an adult and has now developed the ability to treat others as adults.

But getting back to the initial point, we need to celebrate what we are already doing, but also improve what we are already doing. There are people out there who have thought deeply, have researched, have years of experience that we can benefit from. Yes there are those with years of doing something which may not be the best of practices. Hopefully God will provide the opportunity for assistance to those programs as the Christian church grows and develops in areas related to disability ministry. There is so much room for thought in this area.

But as stated above, the point is to begin and to even do things wrongly. Even if we are not doing things according to the "state of the art" we are moving in a direction and we can be directed. We will also see the logic of the correctives which might be suggested as well if we are "in the trenches" trying to figure things out.

There is really no excuse for inactivity in this area. Trust in the Lord and look to Him to direct you. Also recognize that as in any area of human endeavor, there are people who have gone before. Look to see what they have done. Evaluate what they have done to see that it treats people with disabilities with respect, does not demean them, and then emulate what you see as appropriate.