It seems that I have landed myself in a somewhat controversial vocation. Initially, I didn’t dream that special needs advocacy could provoke so many disputes. I had assumed that everyone would be on the “same page.” Silly me.
While I knew of (and completely support) a variety of approaches for ministry to children with special needs, I have learned over the past year that many times the waters are murky. Terms like “inclusion” and “self-contained” claim prominence in a debate that I hoped would be about drawing people to Jesus. People who, by the way, desperately need the Story.
The Story I am referring to is the old, old story – that overarching story of reconciliation that we call The Bible. People with and those affected by disability need to hear the unmistakable refrain that echoes through all 66 books: God created humanity in his image, loves us, and went to great lengths to redeem us. All of us – even those that the world considers damaged, broken and disposable.
Last spring I was given an opportunity to do something I never thought I’d be able to do. I was asked not only to edit materials in such a way as to tell that story to children with special needs, but to help design a VBS format to do it in. Beyond the arguments and disputes of “inclusion” and “self-contained” classrooms, I got to write materials that send the message of the Gospel out for all children. Even those who are very different.
Noah was thrilled with my opportunity. When I was in ministry, Vacation Bible School was the bane of his summer. It disturbed his schedule. The decorations disrupted the predictable environment he clung to. Everything from worship to crafts to Bible story was offensive to his delicate nervous system. He even hated the shirts. Over the years, my teaching team found countless ways to integrate Noah into VBS. Those efforts were precious to both of us.
When he heard I was writing to give suggestions that make it possible for kids like him to have an easier time at VBS he said, “This is great. We can do it Mom, if we just have a little help.” That “little help” is what I have been working on for several months now. As I wrote I found it included modifications to story telling techniques and games, as well as instructions on how to make “members” of the disabled.
Offering them places as members in our community, it turns out, has much more to do with making ourselves more open to them than changing them. I will ever be thankful to Standard Publishing for their openness to every suggestion I made. As a matter of fact, in a meeting when we discussed available space for both a special needs amendment and a “regular lesson” the question was asked: What happens if we don’t have space for both? The answer given was: Then the special accommodation BECOMES the lesson for EVERYONE. That, my friends, is inclusion on a level different from any popular dispute about least restrictive environment. It is about membership.
On top of the enormous opportunity to write for this project, the team invited Noah and Ito be a partof the video shoot for the VBS video. So, Noah and I, armed with noise reducing headphones and other sensory accommodations trekked to Dayton,Ohio. If you are wondering what Noah thought of this you will be glad to know that he kind of viewed it as a mission trip.
He was determined to show people what a “little help” looked like. So learned the VBS songs and performed them on video – with his noise reducing headphones. He took park in lessons and games using those and other accommodations I had written. For a break in the day we visited Safari Sensory Station, a special space I created for sensory breaks and one-on-one teaching at VBS.
But here is the proof of membership…
At lunch on Day 2 of the shoot we were having lunch in the Green Room (which as Noah pointed out was not “green” at all). He and I has gone through the line ahead of time and were sitting alone at a table enjoying lunch. Soon the other kids and adults filed in and started eating. But then something amazing happened.
I looked up from my sandwich to see 5 kids from the group standing with their plates at our table. One of them said, “We didn’t want Noah eatingalone. Can we sit here with him?”
Why did this happen? Why did 5 kids who had never met Noah just 24 hours before not want him to eat alone? Besides, wasn’t I there? What prompted them to include him in their lunch bunch? How did he become a “member” of a group of strangers?
I can tell you how. He had been included, to the best of his capabilities, in worship and lessons and games and crafts. Did he take breaks? Yes. Was he in 100% of every activity? No. But his very presence and participation on some level told these kids that he belonged there. He was a member of them.
At the end of our time there I asked Noah how he felt about the project. He said, “It made me feel really special – but not in the bad way.” Apart from feeling different and apart from the group, I think Noah felt honored for those differences. Still a member of the body, but with a very unique gift to offer.
You know, special…but not in the bad way. That, my friends, is membership.