The Inclusive Church

Processing Painful Comments about Children with Special Needs

Intentionally I work to keep the tone positive on this blog.  There are enough negative church stories out there about the lack of adequate acceptance for families impacted special needs.  I feel called specifically to keep the conversation productive and focused on solutions, that’s why most posts have a “how to” feel.  Today’s post is an exception.  The story here is relatively insignificant and did not have direct impact on a family affected by disability …at least not that I could tell.  But it is worth sharing (I think) to remind us all that deep-seated (and sinful) insecurities and attitudes of pride show up at church inside the people they inhabit.  And unfortunately it is the “least of these” that are most susceptible to the resulting and insulting disrespect.

Each Sunday my husband and I attend a very large church considered to be seeker friendly.  Only occasionally do we recognize the faces sitting around us in the worship center.  Yesterday morning several women who appeared to be loose acquaintances filed into the row in front of us.  I missed the early part of the conversation between four of these ladies, likely in their forties and single.  Toward the end of what appeared to be light hearted small talk, one of the friends responded with a quip trying to be funny: “Are you saying I should ride the short bus?”  The lady asking the rhetorical and “comical” question repeated herself and the others on the row traded awkward laughs.

My heart sank when I heard the short bus“joke” offered a second time among the fellow worship-goers.  I looked up to notice that the lady delivering the not-so-funny line had turned her head and realized I was looking at her.  I was uncomfortable with her dig at kids with special needs and my face may have shown it.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady was looking around to see if others had heard her insulting expression.  For those of you who don’t know, I am not a special needs parent.  My only child is a typical elementary school-aged boy who does not ride a bus equipped to transport children with physical disabilities.  But at the moment I heard the one-liner about the short bus, my stomach turned a somersault.  I received and processed the tasteless joke as if I was one of my neighbors, who waves her baby off to such a bus each morning.

I didn’t say anything to the jokester churchgoer yesterday.  For all I knew, it was this lady’s first time in church and coming yesterday may have been a big step for her.  As it turned out, the pastor’s message was perfect for me and perfect for a person new to the faith.  I do not regret the decision not to confront the lady in front of me (and for those of you who know me personally, you know I’m not afraid to speak truth even in uncomfortable situations).   But I left the church service still reflecting on my eaves dropping experience. No doubt mothers, fathers, and siblings of children with special needs have all been stung at some point or another by devaluing, derogatory references to persons with disabilities from people inside the four walls of a church.

Here’s my prayer this week:

May God provide peace and comfort to parents who experience words that devalue their children.  May God place people, Scripture, and experiences in the paths of families impacted by disability that affirm God’s value and purpose for their child with special needs.  And may God stir the hearts of ministry leaders to make churches a place that all families can experience Jesus’ love for them.

~ Amy Fenton Lee

For a similar post, see Disability Etiquette