Thursday, April 27, 2017

Treating persons with intellectual disabilities in an age appropriate manner

Last year, I spoke at a conference attended by persons interested in theology, disability and disability ministry. Many were arguably disability ministry leaders. The main topic of my presentation was related to age appropriateness in ministry approaches to persons with intellectual disabilities.  I have to admit I was surprised when I received a lot of push back from the group about treating adults with intellectual disabilities as adults. You see, when you treat adults as children, this reveals more about who you are then about who they are. So these leaders reflected more about who they were which was what was somewhat shocking to me. Like any form of discrimination, actions can reveal discrimination. You have a characteristic which in most ways should be considered irrelevant to my interactions with you. I, however, see your characteristic as something which I feel I should elevate to a level which I feel allows me to act toward you in ways I would never act towards others.

Without naming specific programs, there are those who attempt to celebrate the lives of persons with intellectual disabilities by treating them in age inappropriate, demeaning ways. Imagine any group who has been discriminated against in some way by the larger society. The larger society then recognizes that those individuals have experienced discrimination. So in "repentance" they celebrate you in the same ways in which you have historically experienced being demeaned. This happens with age inappropriateness. Society has treated adults with intellectual disabilities as children. But when it comes time to try to celebrate them, they actually denigrate them by treating them as children. Once again that reveals who they are, not who those with disabilities are.

Now I recognize that people will do these things with the best intentions. Segregated ministries are developed similarly, with the best intentions. However, intentions when leading to flawed programs or activities do not justify the flawed programs or activities. I would like to care about your intentions, however, I am more interested in what you actually do. In the same way that if you segregate people with the best intentions and are dead wrong, if you treat adults as children because they have an intellectual disability you are wrong. If you want to read more on age appropriateness, see these past blog entries.

My wife Kathi and I have facilitated ministry at local churches for 40 years. In the past 27 years of our group called the Light and Power Company, we have made every effort to ensure that adults are treated as adults. I remember one visitor to our program commented, "Your program is different in that you treat them as if they were your peers." Well Lord willing, we do not treat them AS IF they were our peers, we treat them as our peers because they are our peers. They are adults and therefore should be treated as adults. Once again, if I do not treat adults as adults, it reveals things, negative things, about me. Such treatment is not reflective of anything about the individual with intellectual disability.

I am working on an article at the moment on age appropriateness. As ideas develop I will share more here.



  1. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Jeff, I agree with your point of view, we as Christians should treat everyone as our peers. We should not be treating people with intellectual disabilities as the age we perceive them, but to their actual age. Who are we to cast our perceptions on to anyone. We should show love and treat them with age appropriateness. Just because someone was dealt a different hand of cards does not give someone the right to segregate others. Failing to treat a person with an intellectual disability by their chronological age is not seeing the person, you are letting their disability define them. I agree regardless if you have the best intentions not seeing a person as a whole is wrong.

  2. Anonymous9:06 AM

    This is a well-written article with a Biblical perspective. However, Christians and non-Christians should be following this model. I find that, as I work with children with disabilities, many therapists, teachers, and paraprofessionals treat children with disabilities in an age inappropriate manner. These professionals have good intentions, which I respect and appreciate; but just as you said, it is about what these professionals do. I strive to treat children with disabilities by their chronological age, not their "mental age" or "behavioral age." Their intellectual capacity and disability should not dictate how non-disabled people treat them. All people should be treated in a respectful matter, regardless of their disability.