Respecting the Voices of People with Intellectual Disabilities

By Bethany McKinney Fox (MDiv ’06)

A number of years ago while attending Columbia Theological Seminary, I was part of a local group beginning to pray and vision about establishing a small ecumenical community where people with and without intellectual disabilities would share life together. After one of these meetings a woman in the group said to me, “There should really be some people with intellectual disabilities on this team with us.”

At the time her comment both challenged and confused me. Although I taught special education, had grown considerably as a person and in my faith because of my relationships with people with intellectual disabilities, and saw the wide array of gifts God had given each of them, I didn’t think it made sense to include people with intellectual disabilities on a team like this. After all, we were meeting to discuss complicated details, to plan, to figure out fundraising, to build networks, and to organize logistics. If someone with an intellectual disability were to join, I figured they would be bored as we went through financial details and had abstract discussions of vision and mission statements. I moved back to Los Angeles within the next few months so I’m not sure whether they did eventually include anyone with an intellectual disability on that particular team, but the woman’s point remained with me.

I was always reminded of it again, at times when other people would speak to my friends with intellectual disabilities as if they were small children and not adults in their 40s and 50s. I’d feel patronized and angry on their behalf whenever this would happen. But my friends didn’t always feel the same way. When I asked how they felt after such an interaction, it usually didn’t bother them. They often said the person was nice, that they liked them, and left it at that. But internally I would think things like, “You can’t really want to invite that person to your birthday party or consider them a friend – they are so disrespectful in how they talk to you!”

But I realized that my reaction was just another way of silencing their perspectives and voices in their own lives. If they chose to respond with grace and friendship to people who may not engage them in an age-appropriate way, who am I to decide they should respond otherwise?

When Jesus engages Bartimaeus, who was blind and a beggar at the time, he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) Jesus doesn’t assume that he wants his sight restored or a new line of work. Bartimaeus did in fact want these (and other) things from Jesus, as the rest of the narrative reveals, but Jesus asks Bartimaeus about his needs and desires.

Some of the ways I was trying to be supportive and make sure my friends were being treated well were actually examples of me imposing my own ideas about what was good for them, when their actual priorities and felt needs were different. This happens regularly in many ministries focused on “helping” a specific population, especially “special needs” ministries. But people with intellectual disabilities have insights into their own lives and ways of connecting with God that every scholar, theologian, parent, friend, or disability professional can only understand by paying attention and respecting their voices – whether expressed in words or another way.

When we leave the voices of people with intellectual disabilities out of our structures and leadership practices, especially those striving to make our churches more hospitable to people with disabilities, we lack integrity. If we truly value people of all abilities as created by God and valuable, important, essential parts of the Body of Christ, and we affirm that we need their gifts as much as they need ours, this needs to be reflected in all of our practices.

So now, whenever I speak at churches or conferences to people wanting intentionally to welcome children and adults with intellectual disabilities into their communities, my first (and repeated) question is, “How are you making a way for people with intellectual disabilities to be part of the creation and ongoing leadership of this endeavor?” As it is, there are many parts, but one body. We all need each other.

Bethany McKinney Fox is Director of Student Services and Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. She recently completed 4.5 years serving as Co-Director of Student Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, and has been involved with L’Arche as a volunteer and assistant for many years. Bethany graduated with an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2006, and then with a PhD in Christian Ethics from Fuller this past year, with her dissertation titled “Disability, Healing, and Jesus: Practices and Perspectives from the Gospels.” She has written articles on how to see disability and disruption in worship services and holistic ways of understanding the healing work of Jesus. She enjoys singing loudly, exploring the music, restaurants, art, and parks of her city, and learning about people’s passions. She lives in central Los Angeles with her delightful, musical husband Michael and their foster hamster Hildegard of Bingen.

The Center for Lifelong Learning is finalizing plans for our new event, Being the Beloved Community: Welcoming Children of All Abilities to Church, May 9-12, 2016, and keynoted by Bethany McKinney Fox. This program will address how to better incorporate the gifts of children and youth with disabilities into congregational worship and spiritual formation/education ministries.

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