Several years ago the following article appeared in the magazine for Cadet leaders. (Cadets is a church-based program for boys.) Rev. Noorman's ideas are appropriate to anyone involved in youth programming in churches including youth groups, church school, G.E.M.S., scouting, etc. Although the language the author uses to refer to people with disabilities is a bit different than the language we use today, the challenge presented and the ideas given are fresh and relevant.
It comes simply and sincerely, “We’d like our son to be a Cadet!” You know a little about their Tony. You have seen him around church. He’s different from the other boys. He has some physical challenges, and he goes to a special school. He seems to walk a bit differently. Does this simple request throw you into a panic? Let’s talk about it for a moment. It doesn’t have to be scary.
Basically, kids with disabilities are God’s kids, and they have a right to be included in the activities of God’s family. They also have a need to be accepted by other persons and by their peers. What better place to have this experience of love than in God’s family? So how do we go about sharing our ministry with kids who have physical and/or mental challenges? No one way will satisfy each person. They are as individual and unique as any of your other Cadets.
We need to be able to minimize their weaknesses and to build on their strengths.
The first thing you need to do to be successful is to find out about your new Cadet. Who is he, beyond his name? What abilities does he have? What are his strong points and the “positives” which you can build on? What are his levels in memory, reading, physical activity? What or where does he feel most comfortable? To get answers, be genuine! Be interested! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to admit your own need to learn how to help. Be teachable! You can do this by spending time with him and by talking to his parents.
The next thing that you have to do is prepare the other Cadets to be open and accepting, kind and friendly, when Tony comes to join in. We need to be inclusive in our Cadet groups. Many people are afraid of a person who has a disability simply because they have had no practical experience.
She was a “special” person. She had Cerebral Palsy and walked with a limp, carrying one arm close to her chest. She drooled some and wore hearing aids. She could not speak. As she came limping into the assembly room the others in her class would turn back watching. “Here she comes! Here she comes!” was echoed along the row. As she slid into her seat at the end of the row, the whole class stood and moved over two chairs. She looked and tears rolled down her cheeks. Once again separated and two chairs away. “Why, Daddy, don’t the other kids like me?” she asked with her hands, using sign language in place of her tongue. I wept with her every week feeling her pain because she was shut out. Yes, counselor, the others need to know and to be prepared to make your special Cadet accepted and included. Please don’t assume this will happen automatically.
Perhaps there is another Cadet who knows Tony. Maybe he has spent some time with him before. He might be willing to be a buddy to Tony. He will need to be willing to learn and to go out of his way to help. He needs to be accepting and willing to share. Acceptance by his peers will help Tony to bloom and to reach for his greatest potential in the Kingdom. Their rejection will cause him to withdraw and to “shrivel’ as an old bloom on a flower long past its peak.
The third thing you will have to do before he comes into your club is to evaluate your whole program: the Bible lessons, the projects, the snacks and the overnighters. How should these be modified to meet his needs?
I met him in catechism class. I was new in the church. There he was, 15 years old, tall and gangly. But he was sitting in the third grade class with all the younger kids. “It’s his learning level!” I was told. But how did that make him feel? He was “dumb” he said and so had to be with the little kids. He couldn’t learn and so was not allowed to be with his peers.
They may not get it all, but keep them with their age group. They will learn a lot by “osmosis” – absorbing simply by being there in the presence of what’s going on. As you evaluate your program, see how you can modify your activities for him to make him an included member. Maybe he has trouble eating and will need his snack broken up into smaller pieces. So “modify” or bring a substitute. You may already be doing this for a Cadet with diabetes. Knowing his needs you bring along crackers. Perhaps a straw will aid in drinking. All the projects can be the same but perhaps the help he receives will have to be a bit more.
The “overnighter” can be exciting for him. Ask, “What do I need to provide to make this camping experience awesome for him?” Simply think it through. I remember a blind Cadet who had the time of his life at an international camporee because he was included.
I’d like to make a few practical suggestions for experiencing a great success.
One-on-one is often most effective. Remember the buddy of a few paragraphs ago? Perhaps, you have a counselor who feels led of the Lord to come along and be a role model. Put out the invitation and see who steps up to accept the challenge.
For many, individual planning is the key to success. It is not how do I change everything in our program, but rather, how can I include him and make him feel successful? A little time spent ahead will guarantee a happy camper. Be ready to be surprised. God’s kids blossom and open to a greater potential when the challenge comes from love and seems reachable to them.
Set goals you hope to achieve which are reachable. Don’t undershoot, but don’t set your goals so high that they are unattainable. That would make them give up in defeat. We’ve all seen the eyes of a little boy who is lifted high over his big brother’s head so that he can make a swish shot over the basketball rim. If you cannot bring the hoop down to his level and ability, then bring him up to the level of the hoop.
Over all this planning and learning and accepting, pour out an intensity of prayer. You may feel weak and scared and wondering if you are doing it right. Have no fear. Ask the Father to lead you and give you the power. Ask the Father for wisdom. Love His special sons with a holy love. God will bless you with even greater challenges. You will experience blessings as you “learn” and “grow” and step up to the challenge in Jesus name.