Not a Piece of Furniture


As an undergraduate, I babysat for a classmate’s two children, her eight-year-old daughter (Leah*), and her five-year-old son (Carl*).  Leah was born with severe cerebral palsy and required constant care.  Leah could not walk, talk, sit up by herself, or feed herself.  She had to wear a diaper, and a bib under her chin to catch continual drooling.  When Leah was not in her wheelchair, she had to sit in a makeshift, baby carrier, type seat, which had to be propped up against a wall to keep her upright.

Although Leah could not communicate with words, she still could communicate in other ways.  Leah would smile and giggle whenever anyone smiled at her or talked to her.  She would make a happy, singing moan and try to move her arms whenever her mother walked into a room.

My church was starting a new Wednesday night Bible study series, at which childcare was also provided.  Come Wednesday night, I happily deposited Leah and Carl in the children’s area.  There were close to five other children present that night.  I explained Leah’s medical condition to the two church members who were volunteering their time in childcare, that evening.  Both of these women were married mothers, one having five children, the other having four children.  I viewed them as very responsible people.

During the break in our Bible study session, I peeked in the children’s area to see how Leah and Carl were faring as the new kids.  Right then, the two volunteers were preparing to watch a DVD with the children.  So, as I looked in, they were putting chairs together, pulling the other children onto their laps, snuggling into a comfy cluster.  What was missing from this warm and cozy scene, though, was Leah.  They left her sitting on the floor, propped up against a cabinet, close to ten feet away from the rest of the group.

I was quite taken aback at this sight, and wanting to quickly draw the women’s attention to their oversight, I snapped, “Well, can she see (the television) from over there?”  I scooped Leah up to see if she needed a diaper change.  One of the volunteers jumped to her feet to try to help me.  Still agitated, what was ringing through my head was, “They wouldn’t want anyone treating one of their kids like a forgettable piece of furniture!”

In all fairness, these two volunteers may not have had training in working with children with special needs.  Yet, they were still mothers with some experience.  Furthermore, I am not, at all, stating that either of these women had the propensity to abuse Leah, or any other child.  Yet, we do know that child abuse and neglect can be viewed in a similar light, both causing harm to children and destroying, rather than creating, the nurturing environment that children need to thrive.  I would challenge our churches to ask what training we have and how we are preparing ourselves to be more sensitive, so that our churches are safer places for everyone.

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Robin, thanks for this! Here are three ideas to get people started on a road toward fully engaging kids with disabilities at their church:

  • Treat him or her, as much as possible, like you treat the other children.
  • Don't assume what the child can or cannot do, but learn by interacting with him or her and by talking with the child's parents/guardians.
  • For more information, see the Resources for Church Education from Disability Concerns, and Church Services from CLC Network. 

Thank you, for these helpful suggestions, Mark.  We can all participate better, when we are better informed!