My son TJ was born a typical child. At the age of 16, he acquired a brain injury that left his body severely disabled but his cognition intact. He thus became a child with special needs. During the five years that TJ lived with his brain injury, one thing that became glaringly obvious to me was the lack of education in the community about how to treat people with special needs. Many, many times my heart was broken for TJ and for myself because of hurtful comments or actions that were made from the Christian community and the non-Christian community alike. After struggling with anger for a time, I began to realize it was really just a lack of education, and I felt a burning desire to do something about it.
First, let me start by explaining what “typical” means. “Typical” refers to basically any person who doesn’t have special needs. Many people in the special needs community are offended by the word “normal,” and rightfully so; therefore, the word “typical” is used in its place. For me the word “normal” does not bother me when referring to TJ in particular because who he was after his brain injury was not his normal. However, it is very understandable why the parent of a child with Down’s syndrome would be offended by the word “normal” because their child was born with Down’s syndrome which means God created the child that way and that IS the child’s normal. Labeling a child as “normal” or “not normal” can be very hurtful, so to be safe, it is best to stay away from using those terms.
Now that our vocabulary lesson is done, I want to share a story of my mindset of special needs prior to TJ’s injury in 2013. A few months before his surgery, I was at a craft show with a friend. As I came through the door into the room, I saw a young girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old, with special needs in a wheelchair. After seeing her, I quickly looked the other way and pretended I hadn’t seen her. After meandering through the craft tables for awhile, I came back around to the entrance of the room and saw the little girl again. However, this time a woman was standing beside her. The woman was caressing the little girl’s face and talking softly to her. As the little girl was leaning into the caress, a look of pure pleasure spread across her face from the love and attention this woman was showing her. I immediately felt ashamed. “Why didn’t you acknowledge her?” I thought. “Why didn’t you at least just smile at her? Why did you just pretend she wasn’t there? I’m supposed to be a Christian,” I told myself.
Fast forward four years. One Sunday morning we were attending church. Generally TJ went to his own room where Tom, a very kind man with a servant’s heart, taught him a lesson from the Bible. However, on this particular Sunday, Tom was gone, so TJ stayed in church with us. Toward the beginning of the service at our church, there is a greet-your-neighbor time. While I was shaking hands with the people around me, I kept my eye on TJ. I noticed nobody came to shake his hand or greet him. I immediately felt very sad for him and ran to be by his side. I then saw a woman a few rows in front of us scanning the room for another person to greet. When her eyes landed on TJ, a look of uncomfortableness flashed across her face, and she quickly turned around. My heart sank. I was now on the receiving end of the quick head turn, and it didn’t feel good.
Even though the woman’s failure to acknowledge TJ hurt, I understood what she was feeling that morning because I had felt the same way years prior. I assume that like me before TJ’s injury, she probably had no experience with special needs and didn’t know what to do. She may have had thoughts like: “If I approach him, will he get scared and start screaming?” “If I greet him and he can’t greet me back, will it make him uncomfortable? Will it make me uncomfortable?” “Maybe he really just wants to be left alone.”
What the person with special needs and their families want everyone else to know is that as much as it is possible, we just want to be treated like everyone else. If it’s the greet time, greet us and shake our hands. If the person with special needs can’t shake hands, give them a gentle touch on the shoulder and tell them you are happy they are there. If they are nonverbal and can’t respond, that’s okay. Tell them anyway, smile, and then move on like you would with everyone else. You never know how much a person with special needs is capable of understanding by looking at them. Some are far more capable of understanding than you think they are, and even if they aren’t capable of understanding your greeting, their families are and they notice when their child is being acknowledged and they do feel loved by it.
I am convinced that it was not a coincidence that the event at the craft show happened just a couple of months before my son became a person with special needs. I believe God had me experience both sides of the quick head turn so that I could help build a bridge between the general community and the special needs community. It really is just a matter of education.
I’ll never forget what my friend Kim did for TJ the first day he was healthy enough to return to church. She was elated when she heard the news that TJ was there. She made a beeline straight to him, fell all over him, and told him how happy she was that he was there and how much she cared about him. After having experienced so much rejection, her kindness still brings tears to my eyes. Kim didn’t seem to notice that TJ was drooling all over himself, that there was a gurgling sound coming from his trach, or that he couldn’t focus his eyes on her when she talked to him. What Kim saw was a heartbroken person who had been through a terrible tragedy and needed to be loved. That day she made him feel like he was a little bit more of a person and a little bit less of an outcast.
Whenever I see someone at church or in the community with special needs, I remember what Kim did for TJ and how it made us feel. As best I can, I imitate her actions to other people with special needs so they will also feel a little bit more like a person and a little bit less like an outcast.
Job 6:14a “To him who is afflicted, kindness should be shown by his friend…”