My Uncle Walt was one of my favorite people in the whole world. I don’t think I am alone – everyone who met him loved him. We couldn’t walk through the mall near his house without every store owner shouting, “Hi Walt!” as he strolled by with his arms clasped behind his back. He learned everyone’s birthday within minutes of meeting them and would never forget it. Never. He could identify car troubles from how the engine sounded. He remembered details about your life that you probably long forgot. He always noticed what side you parted your hair on or if you got new glasses. He was brilliant.
But Walt was also mentally retarded.
I have a picture (above) that my mom took of me, my sister and my uncle having a tea party in the back yard with our favorite dolls. I was 6 years old. Walt was 44. Walt had the mental age of a 6 year old and for many years he was my playmate. We played Old Maid by the hour, listened to his records and talked about his paint by number kits. As the years went by, I grew and changed but Walt did not. At the end of his life, he was a delightful 6 year old trapped in an 81 year old body that didn’t work so well anymore.
There was a hole in our family Christmas celebration this year because he was not with us. We missed hearing his squeals of excitement as he ripped open his presents and exclaimed enthusiastically, “I wonder what it is! One way to find out!” We miss Walt dearly, but have confidence that he is with his heavenly Father and has joined his mom and dad who dedicated so much of their life to loving and caring for him.
Growing up with Walt as part of my family impacted me in more ways than I probably realize. I never considered him different. He was just . . . well, Walt. I wish that everyone could have had an uncle like mine. My relationship with Walt gave me a compassion and heart for people with disabilities. And I made sure that my children learned the same in the time that they knew him.
Your kids may have some tough questions about people with disabilities. Here are a few questions your children might have and some suggested points for discussion as well as some additional tips.
Answering tough questions
- Why did God make them this way?
God never intended for people to have disabilities. Disabilities are a result of the Fall and the sin that entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Some people are injured at birth or shortly after. Some people did not grow correctly in their mother’s womb. Some people were involved in car accidents. There are many different reasons for disabilities. But one thing is the same: God loves them all. Every person is precious to Him. In fact, the Bible seems to indicate that people with disabilities hold a special place in God’s heart (read the Beatitudes).
- Why do they look, smell, sound funny?
Our society decides what people are supposed to dress and smell like. If you travel to other parts of the world, you will find that people dress and smell in all sorts of different ways. We need to accept people as they are because what they look or smell like on the outside does not tell the full story of what is on the inside.
- Can I catch what they have?
You cannot catch a disability. It is not an illness or a disease. You do not need to be concerned about touching them or being near them. They need hugs and touches just as much as you do.
- Will they hurt me?
This question should be answered how you would answer any “stranger” question.
When you are with me, you can answer and talk to anyone you would like, even if you do not know them. God calls us to be kind, compassionate and hospitable to everyone we meet. I will make sure that you are always safe. If I am not near, come find me and we will talk to the person together. You do not have to be afraid of anyone with disabilities.
Dealing with awkward moments
1) Your child stares at someone with disabilities.
Gently distract or divert his attention. Enlist him in helping you with a task at hand (loading the grocery cart, for example). Talk to him later by saying something like, “I saw that you were looking at that man with the red coat. Do you have questions about what you saw?” Answer his questions then add, “It can be hard to not look at people who are different, but we need to think of how we would feel if we were in their shoes. I will help you with a simple, friendly reminder next time.”
2) A person with disabilities makes a “scene” in public.
Remove yourself from the scene and address it as soon as possible. Ask your child if she has any questions about what happened. She may be concerned that the person was in pain if he was making a lot of noise. Explain that the person was not in any pain – it is the only way he has to express himself without the use of language. Explain a possible “back story” to help your child understand why the person was exhibiting the behavior he did.
These awkward moments are great opportunities to teach your children empathy and compassion for those who have a disability.
- Focus on what the person with disabilities can do, rather than what they can’t do.
- Find opportunities to serve those with disabilities (see Matthew 25:31-46).
- Model serving those in need to your children.
- Keep the dialogue going. Use what your see around you to develop a sensitive and compassionate heart in your children.
I was so blessed to have someone like Walt in my life. I feel that he did so much to correct people’s misperceptions of mental retardation.
He was a true ambassador for the love and grace of God.