The first year I was teaching in the writing program Lucia was diagnosed with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome just a month after her first birthday. I remember that despite the cake and the guests, there was a somberness to that first birthday. Lucia couldn’t eat the cake we made, because she’d just begun feeding through a tube a few months prior. We worried that she’d spit up violently during the party like she often did or that she’d scream in pain most of the time. But mostly we felt intent to celebrate because we didn’t know how many birthdays we’d have and we were desperate and determined to have that first one even if it wasn’t perfect.
Later that summer I began to wonder what God was doing.
I’d spent years doing research in China studying foster families who raise children with disabilities; disability in China had become so unexpectedly a professional, academic interest. And then we had our own child with special needs and it all felt a bit too close for comfort. People wondered about the order of things: surely you planned to study disability because of your own child? No, it was the other way around? They’d shake their heads disconcertedly, unnerved, perplexed. It felt reductive to presume God had been equipping us in China to be Lucia’s parents or a bit simplistic and crass to pronounce that Lucia’s disability and our relationships with families in China had all been a part of God’s plan, but it was also hard not to see it that way either.
But somewhere along the way, I began to embrace what God was doing even if I didn’t fully understand it. I began to dream that summer about a writing course about disability, but would students want to take such a course, I wondered. When we develop our writing courses our directors always encourage us to get inside the minds of 18 year olds arriving at college, and so the most popular classes are on madness, New York, extra-terrestrials, and film. Would a course on disability really be something freshman students would care about?
I’m not sure how popular my course has been, but every semester, two groups of twelve students walk in the door. Many of them come because they have a family member who has a disability, and they want to understand and talk about it. Some of them are just curious. I’m sure for several of them, my course wasn’t their first choice and they just ended up there by chance.
But I try to make the most of that chance.
The course considers disability as a form of diversity, a form of difference, and challenges the students to think beyond what they thought they knew about disability to reconsider how disability can teach us more about what it means to be human. At an elite, ivy league university, the thought that people with intellectual disabilities might be insightful when it comes to our knowledge about humanity it a particularly challenging, counter-cultural thought. For some of my students that dissonance, having a brother back at home who struggles to speak because of his autism, while they are thousands of miles away, toiling for the mere self-improvement of their own mind, is nearly too much to bear. During a routine writing conference, one such student broke down and told me, “I just had to take your course. When I look at all the ones on campus, it is the only one that seems to matter.”
I am not a miracle worker, but I do try to offer those students shelter and companionship within the world of academia. I know just how inhospitable such a world can be to the daughter I love most, the daughter who has taught me more about myself, life, and God than nearly any other human being on the planet–and yet to so many, she is broken, disabled, lacking. Together with twenty-four students each semester in this small, windowless classroom, we encounter just that kind of prejudice and exclusion toward people with disabilities, and I invite them to see otherwise.
What happens each semester is powerful.
Not only are there brave, open-minded students who have little contact with people with disabilities but come because they want to learn, but there are students with disabilities in my classroom who find that they are not alone and they are valued. There are students who leave impassioned to work with and learn more about people with disabilities even though they came in somewhat hesitant.
And at the end of the semester, when I have the students write narratives and Op-Eds about what they’ve learned about disability, I am overwhelmed. At the end of a semester of rigorous academic writing, they are invited to share their hearts, and I sit there with my coffee and my computer, humbled and honored to be invited into their beautiful, painful lives. So many students have written about how religious leaders have been so limited in their understanding of disability, hurting their family members, denying their humanity. So many have written about their own struggles with learning disabilities or mental illness that they’ve often kept to themselves on a campus that doesn’t have time for any inkling of weakness. Still others find the language of disability and difference a provocative opening to reconsider their experiences of race, class, gender, or body issues.
Every semester these disability narratives blow me away.
I learn so much from my students. Indeed, it was with that first class that I began to write about my own experiences–“I’m Not Sorry” was my disability narrative that I wrote alongside them, because I told them that I couldn’t ask them to be so brave if I wasn’t willing to try, too. These students have made me realize that the collision of my personal and professional life is both a gift and a responsibility. As I read over these narratives this past week, I realized that students leave my classroom better equipped to appreciate what is sacred in people who are different from them. And the hope that welled up in my heart when I read those narratives was distinct and surprising and so thrilling, because these students will resist attempts to belittle those who are different and those with disabilities. I know they will. These students will use their knowledge for good. It is because of these students that I can’t help but find purpose in my life and Lucia’s life; the opportunity to serve them and to grow alongside them is just too precious, too unique.
A few days ago, I snidely posted the following words to my social media account,
“Apparently there’s an inauguration today. Meanwhile, I have rearranged my office for maximum coziness while I get to read the exams where my students explore what they’ve learned about disability and difference over the course of our semester. How’s that for a protest, Mr. Trump? Three semesters (and counting) of students who will value and advocate for people with disabilities: we will make America great with or without you.”
So you see, this class, while it’s not overtly political is a distinct act of resistance in a world that is far too close-minded, cruel, and careless when it comes to the lives of people with disabilities. It’s resistance that comes from knowledge and hope and love. It is the resistance that I choose and that has chosen me. And I will carry on because just a few years removed from Lucia’s first birthday, I no longer question God at all. Rather all I can do is thank God for God’s incredible vision and a life so humble and yet, so grand.