Welcoming People with Disabilities

By Christine Milner
Associate Professor of Kinesiology

“I’m thinking,” Barbara muses. “I’m thinking.”

“What are you thinking about, Barbara?”

“I’m thinking that I want to live with Stacy forever!”

This scene played out between friends during dinner at L’Arche, Portland, one of a worldwide community of homes for people with disabilities. Like the other core members who live there, Barbara and Stacy have intellectual disabilities, the population L’Arche most often serves. I became acquainted with L’Arche through Henri Nouwen’s book, “In the Name of Jesus,” and spent some time this fall with four core members and their assistants in Portland, Ore., as part of my sabbatical project. I left L’Arche humbled by the lessons I learned and eager to share my experience, especially with churches.

L’Arche taught me powerful insights about becoming a welcoming presence in the lives of others, particularly those with disabilities. Most churches have removed physical barriers that prevent full participation and acceptance for all. We have ramps leading into our sanctuaries, access to the altar for wheelchairs, help during Communion and devices available for those with hearing loss. But we sometimes fail to consider the attitudinal barriers that can cause more pain and exclusion than physical ones.

How do we do create these barriers? One way is the words we choose. Scholars in the area of disability studies encourage the use of person-first language. When we refer to “that blind person” or “that intellectually disabled” person, we focus on their disability and not who they are as people. Just as we don’t want to be labeled by the many things we can’t do, people with disabilities deserve to have their identity rooted in their individuality, not in generalizations. “People with disabilities,” not “disabled people,” will feel more welcomed in our churches.

My first week at L’Arche I felt restless and awkward. What should I say or do? How do I interact with people with intellectual disabilities? The assistants serving there became my mentors. Watching them in action is like witnessing the hand of God care for the most vulnerable of His creation. They demonstrated for me how to be present with the core members.

These assistants, often young college graduates, learn a great deal about caring for people with intellectual disabilities. By their own admission, they discover even more about themselves. L’Arche models selfless, vulnerable love and challenges us to imitate this servant model in our own church communities.

In interview after interview, assistants shared how the vulnerability and mutuality they experience with the core members change them forever. In describing his own transformation, one assistant said, “But ultimately, somehow mysteriously and in new and profound ways, I have discovered my own acceptance. That is, I am fully loved and fully accepted and fully worthy.”

Sitting beside a resident, I learned that sharing a quiet moment has great value. In doing so, I’m communicating, “I like being with you.” I put aside my own pretenses about accomplishment that have no meaning in this encounter. People with disabilities can offer us the gift of patience and steadfastness in this fast-paced world. Simply being and not doing can benefit us all.

Despite important public strides in recent years, people with disabilities often struggle with isolation and loneliness. In our church communities, each of us can provide the gift of friendship, especially to those we perceive to be different from us. Invite someone with a disability out to the park, a meal or for a walk.

We often feel uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities because we’re afraid we’ll make mistakes, say something wrong or embarrass ourselves or others. Let’s love one another enough to be willing to be vulnerable, knowing and accepting that we’ll make mistakes. In seeking to engage someone, ask how we can best be a friend. Ask permission before helping. At L’Arche, I learned to do this before sitting down with someone or assisting them with their meal. Honor their personal space and right to make decisions just as we want others to recognize ours.

It’s important to teach our children to respect and embrace difference. We struggle with this because we’ve grown up in a world that’s failed to model a seamless integration of people with disabilities in our lives. Invite a person from Young Life Capernaum to your home for a visit. Show your children how to be comfortable around disability by encouraging interaction, whether in the neighborhood or in a restaurant when an opportunity arises to engage in natural conversation.

In Luke 14:13, Jesus tells us who to invite to our banquet: people with disabilities and the poor. L’Arche Portland sets a beautiful table and welcomes all to join in.

(Photo courtesy of L’Arche Portland)

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