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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Broadening the notion of "ministry"

I had the priviledge of speaking in a class on suffering and disability at Biola University this past Monday. The class went fine.

Afterwards, one bright student approached me with her story. The child of deaf parents, she wondered about church ministry to persons who are deaf. Should interpretation of sermons into sign language be the extent of ministry with persons who are deaf? What a great question! So the only relevant aspect of being deaf is to be able to understand what is being said to you by someone translating. I am sure there are those who believe that, but I am not sure that I do. I suspect there are many other things that go along with being deaf that I have no understanding of and that if I treat deaf people as if the only important thing about their deafness is that they need to understand what I, or my pastor say, I am being very naive. Other similar questions flooded my mind like, "Are accessible restrooms the entire range of ministry to persons who use wheelchairs?"

The way the church typically responds, you might think so. I have several friends who have progressive MS. Is the extent of ministry to these people accessible restrooms, or a spot for their wheelchair in the church service? You might think so. When will the church, when will leaders in the church take on these issues such that those who experience the disabilities, and the rest of the congregation for that matter, become informed about what disability tells us about who God is, what the role of the church is, as well as thinking through the "whys" of disability. We may never know why, but we can sure explore the whys. Not knowing something has never kept Church leaders from speaking about it in the past. A rational exploration of the whys might be very helpful for all concerned and as with many things in life, the journey may be just as valuable as the answer. What does it imply to you as a disabled person, if I am struggling to understand the issues you face in your life from a Christian perspective? I think it implies at the very least that your issues are important and worthy of my consideration, my professional or pastoral efforts to understand, and at best that perhaps there are answers that might be found should I devote some or all of my energies to the issues.

Exodus 4:11 states,
The LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?

Why would God do such a thing to a person? Because I know that God is love and God is just, there is something for me to learn if I will pay attention. God apparently deliberately makes some people mute or deaf or seeing or blind. I may never fully understand why, however, by devoting my energies to understanding perhaps God will reveal new lessons about himself that the Church has never learned but that God has for us to learn if we will only look.


Southern California has an earthquake drill

Today, California had an earthquake drill to simulate a 7.6 quake. The idea is to prepare schools, government buildings and businesses for what to do. The quake was to occur at 10:00 this morning.

One of my student teachers works with high school students with very severe intellectual and physical disabilities so I thought it would be interesting to go and view how the school would assist students in that type of a program/setting should such a natural disaster occur. As I was driving up, I noticed that what appeared to be the entire student body was standing and milling around on the football field. Of course! The way you prepare for such a disaster is to be in a safe area a half hour before it occurs. Why was I surprised?

When I went to the separate, county classroom area where the students with severe disabilities classrooms were, they were just coming back into the classroom. One student rolled into the room wearing a tee shirt that said on it, "insufficient memory" which was some parent's or group home's idea of a joke. I am sure the severely intellectually disabled student wearing the shirt had a great laugh over the message he was wearing. I never cease to be amazed at the things I see in special education settings. As the students sat there waiting, many of the aides barked at them to stop this or don't do that, very few actually attempting to converse, or explain to them what the change in schedule was about. As one tall autistic boy engaged in stereotypic behavior, his aide said to him, "That is a good autistic thing to do."

My student teacher told me that they were all just told to go out to the parking lot area for 20 minutes and then come back in. They then assembled in a large room, about 31 students most of whom were in wheelchairs, and people to assist them (about 20 teachers and ambulatory students). As the time came for the earthquake to start, I wondered what would happen. Well what happened was nothing. No drill, no noise or simulation of any kind. The whole thing appeared to be a waste of a half day of school.

It is important to me, however, that my teacher is prepared. She has a class of 9 students and two aides. I asked her to talk with her aides about what they would do in the event of a large earthquake. What do you do? Who do you take out first? She related that she and her aides were instructed to get under a table untill the quake was over and then help her students. I understand the rationality of that, but can you really imagine lying under a table in "safety" and watching while your totally defenseless, severely disabled students sit in their wheelchairs, or in their specialized seating devices, crying and screaming while the building falls down onto them. Do you think that would be the same instruction given to teachers working in a nursery? How about in another classroom. "Just get yourself safe and don't worry about your students till the whole thing is over." Do you think that is how teachers of non-disabled students would be instructed, or is there a double standard? Personally, I couldn't do it, and I think I wouldn't do it. If I am ever in such a situation, I pray that I wouldn't do it!

Afterwards, the students were rolled outside where the aides sat at a picnic table largely ignoring the students who sat there in their wheelchairs as the general ed students went back to class. Just another time for a break. This is typical. Any group setting is apparently time for the aides to be off and either socialize, or text message, or do their make-up. The ones I observed drank coke and talked.

I was so proud, however, of my student teacher and her aides who were really hustling! They got their students into walkers, or walked with them, or moved them into the classroom so they could get to work.