It was one of the last few days of the semester, the time when spring is tempting summer and so this particular student and I had elected to head outside to talk. As we settled onto the picnic table, she thanked me earnestly for all that she’d learned over the course of the semester, for my passion for ministry and students and for the class, but as she looked toward the exam she was to write, she had just one final question, she said.
“Do you really believe, Dr. Raffety, that people with disabilities have gifts for ministry?”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing, questioning whether I’d heard or understood her correctly, as she went onto qualify, quite sensitively, but definitively her disbelief in what I had believed to be the central tenet of the course–the one thing I’d been trying to get across all semester. It was a mixture of righteous indignation and bitter disappointment and bewilderment that took over me in that moment: just how might I convince her? Where could I even begin?
That was in May. Our study of disability, communication, and joy with families who have children with disabilities who are nonverbal began in April and has continued over the last few months. And as we’ve spent time with these children and their families, we’ve been struck by how much the struggles of communication are exacerbated by, if not even caused not by the children with disabilities, but by an environment that refuses to consider or appreciate the variety of their attempts to communicate. As one specialist commented to me, “Because people are often only looking for speech, they dismiss a lot of what is also communication.”
But might it work much the same way with gifts? I wondered. Because able-bodied people are looking for certain types of gifts in people with disabilities, gifts they’ve seen before in other able-bodied people and thus recognize, perhaps they literally don’t have the ability to perceive other gifts because they’re hovering under the surface, imperceptible to the able-bodied eye?
Less than a month into our study, a young woman from one of the families we interviewed died. I’ll still never understand how just a day after her sudden death, her mother had the wherewithal to contact a group of lowly researchers to let them know, but she did. One of our research assistants dutifully went to the funeral. Not only at her packed funeral but in a subsequent follow up visit, her parents shared the tremendous impact the young woman’s life had had on so many people around her, but also what they believed to be her unique abilities. As I listened to the interview, I noted how confidently her parents asserted, “She was an excellent judge of character. If she didn’t like someone, it was because she could tell they weren’t genuine… We often learned to take our cues from her reactions to people because she could really tell so much about them just from being with them,” her mother added. All this hypersensitivity and supreme ability from a 30 year-old woman who had physical and cognitive disabilities, limited purposeful movement and no words.
Was this family, especially still fresh in the throes of grief, generously but falsely attributing super powers to their daughter with disabilities? Or might it truly be possible, perhaps especially given their daughter’s presumed dis-abilities, that she had a unique way of interpreting and interacting with the world that has something to teach us?
I’ve always smarted at literature that pronounces the gifts of people with disabilities in terms that are limited and narrow–they’re notable for their wonder at the world, their slow ways of being, their vulnerability, even their joy. Those don’t seem like bad things on the surface, but the sparseness, simplicity, and uniformness of them, the suggestion that people with disabilities fall into these staid categories primarily because of their disabilities does not take full stock of their complicated ways of being human in the world that include but aren’t reduced to their disabilities. Of course, yet another suggestion, that people with disabilities exist as objects, not subjects through which able-bodied people can get in touch with their vulnerability and brokenness as distinct aspects of all our human nature, is also quite offensive.
There’s nothing broken about my daughter, thank you very much.
However, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I’d ever contemplated how my daughter’s own differences in communication, brought forth by her disabilities, palpably registered in her limited movement, vision, and verbal invocations, might yield not just gifts of relationship or gifts of perspective but simply, gifts. I had long noticed that even when Lucia’s gaze was positively fixed on the ceiling or when she seemed little aware of her surroundings, when her father walked into the room, she’d giggle knowingly and even turn to smile in his direction. With low vision and limited head control, it’s pretty clear that she’s not seeing him, but sensing him otherwise; we’ve suspected that she “knows” him by the sound of the weight his carriage (and only his) induces upon our creaky floorboards, because she doesn’t react to anyone else coming into the living room that way.
I’ve long believed that Lucia also knows we’ve come home to our house and entered the garage by the way the light darkens inside the van and the bump into the threshold, at which she always starts smiling and giggling. But just a few days ago, she started smiling even as we pulled into the driveway! And when we came home late from our vacation a few days prior and deposited her asleep into her bed that night, but she ended up in our bed when she was crying the morning after, when I carried her downstairs into the living room, even before I could pronounce that we were home she beat me to it, erupting into giggles, without so much as turning her head to look around the room!
And so, a few days later when the child study team from Lucia’s school called and kept talking about how difficult Lucia is to reach, teach, and communicate with, I kept thinking, are we talking about the same kid? Sure, she doesn’t roll over and she can’t purposefully reach for objects, yet somehow, despite having low vision and not being able to purposefully turn her head with much precision, she knows who her father is. What’s the problem here, again? I wondered. My perspective had been so altered by what we had been seeing in our research study that I couldn’t see Lucia the way they saw her; in fact, I corrected them on it. I told them I didn’t want to hear anything more about how difficult my daughter was. Wasn’t it their job to perceive where communication was already happening and magnify it? Why were they approaching her as if something was wrong with her when it seemed something was wrong with them? (They didn’t like that very much.)
When I responded to my student’s question in May, I spoke from my experience regarding Lucia’s gifts for ministry and the gifts of some people with disabilities in our congregation. Just a few days after, I discovered this beautiful article from Amy Julia Becker, that could have been the anthem for my course, intentionally titled, after all as it was, “Ministry with People with Disabilities.”
But I feel convicted that even my own musings as a researcher, a scholar of disability, and a parent have been necessarily limited and incomplete. Looking back on months of our ethnographic study with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal, nearly every single one of the families notes the gifts of their children with ease; a dramatic portion of them question whether their children are really cognitively impaired or if it’s just the world that’s disabling them. It makes so much sense–we believe that intelligence and gifts come in so many different forms. We say that all the time, but perhaps we don’t really believe it. But it was from the family of the 30-year old girl in our study, the person who had lived the longest, whose family arguably knew her the best and was the most familiar with her, from whom the most precise, dynamic assertion of gifts came.
As able-bodied people, we’ve got to actively stop denying and diminishing the contributions of people with disabilities because they’re not obviously or immediately available to us. Just like the communication that is gainfully there, but simply different, the gifts are also decidedly there but often imperceptible given our own ableist lenses. We’re going to have to learn to accept our own limitations in order to see differently, to believe, to anticipate that gifts come in seemingly curious forms. They even disrupt the status quo, they disturb conventional knowledge, even knowledge of joy and humans and God.
The conviction of this research project has been that people with disabilities have so much to teach us about communication and joy and spirituality if we would just have ears to listen. But my student wasn’t the only one who needs to be rid of her own prejudice and obstacles and ableism to really appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities. That’s a lesson I’m learning everyday. Indeed, I might have replied:
“Yes, I do believe people with disabilities have gifts for ministry, but sometimes I may struggle to see them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there. It means I have a lot of growing to do. But I’m thankful that God has granted me a glimpse of them and I will continue to pray that I can learn to see differently and honor what God is doing in them and through them. I pray that God grants you that, too.”