Will someone tell Linda Howard that it is not Christmas yet
Will someone tell Linda Howard that it is not Christmas yet

The first years I came to Special Gathering, I would all but rush every disabled people I encountered whether in shopping malls or the airport.  I would engage them or their parents in conversation.   I wanted to meet and greet every disabled person in the world.  I was endeavoring to let them know that I wasn’t ashamed of them or their presence. 

Now, I’m not talking about people I knew but total strangers.  Of course, I was careful to engage the parent or caregiver first.  Then if the person accompanying the disabled individual seemed comfortable with my overtures, I would engage the person who was mentally challenged.

Conversely, I noticed that at times other professionals in the field took the opposite approach.  They all but ignored any disabled person they saw in public that they didn’t know.  Deliberately, they avoided eye contact and casual smiles.  I assumed there was a good reason for their behavior; but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

Slowly, I came to understand as I accompanied more and more people with disabilities during public events or public places.  There were reasons why my counterparts in ministry acted in this manner.  I came to realize that one of the best compliments you can pay a person with disabilities is the security of anonymity.  Often, when I accompany my husband or friend to the shopping mall or store, I am amazed at the brazenness shown to people with disabilities by otherwise reasonable looking individuals.

Several times, as I have struggled to manage opening a door and maneuvering my husband’s wheelchair, people have intervened in the most peculiar ways.   Once a woman about 10 years my senior and at least 40 pounds lighter than I am came up to my husband’s chair and took it away from me.  “Let me do that,” she said, shoving me out of the way.  “You hold the door,” she demanded.   I was too shocked to react properly.  In a daze, I reached for the door as she tried to move his chair.

Finding the job much more difficult than she anticipated, she inquired, “There are no handles on this chair.  Why aren’t there handles on his chair?”

I smiled, “Because my husband prefers that other people not push his chair.”

“Well, fine,” she said, injured by my rudeness.  However, she didn’t move away.  To her credit, she grabbed the door.  “Then you see if you can get him inside the restaurant in this chair without any handles.  I’ll hold the door.”

With her helping to hold open the door, I was able to easily position the chair into the entry of the restaurant.  Happily, rather than being offended, she smiled.  “Guess you just need to know what you’re doing,” she commented as she walked away.

I’m convinced that–like me–most people don’t want to be rude.  They are like this dear woman.  She genuinely wanted to help.  Perhaps she also wanted to be sure that my husband wasn’t excluded from a restaurant.  However, like her, their efforts may be misguided.   There are some pretty simple rules that can be followed that will help the person and save his/her dignity.

First rule of thumb is to never touch a chair or walker or a disabled person without permission.  Their chair or walker is the legs of the disabled person.  You wouldn’t touch the legs of a non-disabled person without permission.  Why assume that its permissible to touch a chair?

Second, ask permission before you rush in to help.  “May I help?” is an easy question to ask.

Third, once you have permission, ask what you can do to help.  Don’t assume that the hardest task is the task that is needed.  Usually, holding the door is much more helpful for the disabled person than pushing the chair.

Fourth, don’t be offended if your offer for help is rejected.  It isn’t that you aren’t capable of helping but it may be that there is a system or a technique that is needed that would be too complicated to explain.  Again, I’ll use my husband as an example. 

When he is the driver of his own vehicle, his wheel chair can be disassembled into seven smaller pieces.  Then he stores it in the front seat next to him.  In order to get the chair back out of the car, each piece must go over his lap in front of the steering wheel.  There is only one way that the chair can be put into the car for him to be able to get the chair out of the car by himself.  If someone puts one piece in the wrong position, he would not be able to reassemble the chair once he is at his destination.  Therefore, he will always decline help in disassembling and storing his chair. 

“I can’t believe he won’t ever let me help him,” people often comment to me. 

It is at these moment that I completely understand the joy of anonymity. Having a disability is a tricky business.  Do you not offend when help is offered?  Or do you risk being offensive so that you can function later in the day?  Of course, the person with a disability will almost always err on the side of functionality. 

I have to admit that I’m still more friendly in public than many of my counterparts.  However, my husband says I can engage a tree in a conversation. 

What is the funniest situation that you have encountered when accompanying a person who is mentally challenged in public?

I\'m not going

At times parents will call.  Their voices are strained.  They admit to being frazzled and frayed.  One mother confessed as we stood in the church the first Sunday her son came to Special Gathering, “I really must have a break.”  Bradley, her hyperactive son was experimenting with the elevator buttons, while her husband was smiling and egging him onward.  “He is so curious and active.  I don’t have a minute of peace,”  Bradley’s mother continued.  Her voice was laced with exhaustion and disappointment in her inability to cope.

Her 18 year old son’s mental age is about five years old.  He has all the curiosity of any five year old, his boundless energy matches his mental age while his physical strength corresponds to his actual age.  “I’m not going,” he said for the fifteenth time.  His father grinned at his wife,  “He wants to stay with us.”

The mother’s eyes were now glued to the floor.  “I know.  But I must have a break,” she repeated for the seventh time.  “I must have a break,”  she said staring at me in an apologetic gesture of her hands. 

I placed my hands on hers.  “Of course you do.  And he will be fine.”

Father herded him into the assembly room and Bradley was immediately met with three of his friends from school.  “Cool,” Bradley said as he was ushered to his seat by two of our male volunteers and a young woman who has become our unofficial “new members’ friend.” 

It is extremely painful for a parent when the reality of a sometime-impossible job meets the end of your endurance.  This deadend street appears to have not turn-around alcove and no way to escape.  It is usually the mother who reaches this impasse first.  The shame of coming to this place in the life of your child with a disability is so vibrantly alive you can almost taste it in the air. 

I am always thankful when a parent with such a desperate need discovers Special Gathering.  Yes, we are only a once a week program but that is more than they thought the Church would ever be able to give to them.  And they are amazingly grateful.   The Special Gathering of Indian River is a ministry that is sponsored by more than 40 churches.  We function in South Brevard and Indian River County in Florida.  Our only purpose is to evangelize and disciple people who are mentally challenged.  However, a great bi-product of this important arm of the Church is that we are able to provide a respite time for Bradley’s parents.

As the parents of our newest member walked out the church door, the dad put his arm around his wife.  “He’s going to be okay,”  Bradley’s mom said.  Her husband nodded in agreement and gave her a squeeze. 

By the end of the program, as we were loading Bradley on the bus, he asked, “I’m coming next week?  Can I ride the bus?” 

“You sure can,”  I said.  He’ll be picked up at 8:30am and he’ll get home at 1:15pm.  That’s enough time for his mom to get a shower, get dressed, go to church, come home and fix lunch or read the paper. 

It’s wonderful when desperation brings a new member who begins the morning with “I’m not going” and ends the day asking, “I’m coming next week?”

Have you found some ways to make a new member feel welcomed?  What about the person who has anxiety because of his/her separation from parents?  What are some techniques you’ve found that work to eliminate their concern?