Serving Students with Empathy
September 26, 2016
1 comment 138 views Posted by Mark Stephenson
Peter Gordon is a Commissioned Pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and a member of LaGrave Ave. CRC. This article was taken from Breaking Barriers Fall 2016 issue, which highlights disability and employment.
I am a person with disabilities. I have severe hearing loss, learning disabilities, and processing disorder. I speech read and have hearing aids, but these are only supplemental.
Throughout much of my academic life, from elementary school to seminary, I’ve been in special education classes, remedial classes, and on academic probation.
I was admitted to college on probation. I was required to take academic support classes (no credit), but was charged tuition for them just the same. I was already behind in my freshman year. I graduated a year after the rest of my class.
I needed to find work, normally hard for anyone, despite disabilities. The first job I found after college was part-time janitor and stock boy in a clothing store. My hours were constantly reduced.
I went to seminary, under restrictions and on probation. I received a two-year degree in four years. While working in churches as part of my education, I was sometimes told by well-meaning pastors that the ministry was “no place for a deaf person.” After seminary I worked a series of restaurant jobs ranging from dishwasher, to busboy, to short-order cook. Although there is nothing wrong with any of these jobs, my employment experiences were peppered with managers not understanding my disabilities and responding by reducing my hours, altering my job description in an attempt to help me, or even encouraging me to quit.
In 1993, I began work in group homes and sheltered workshops for people with disabilities. That work lasted for eighteen years until I was “downsized”—my employer citing my disabilities as a major consideration in my termination.
Through prayer and good advice, I went on to do a second stint in seminary and, eventually, to become a commissioned pastor. Now I work as a campus pastor to students with disabilities facing many of the same challenges I did and still face. Jabez Ministries at Grand Rapids Community College (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) focuses on discipling students with disabilities as they realize goals in higher education.
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You should not feel bad that it took you longer to reach your goals than it did for people who are in good health and have no known disability to slow them down. I live with schizophrenia and it took me longer to reach them than healthy people too. I graduated with my second B.A. a couple of weeks before I turned 37. The main thing is that you can actually work for pay in your line of training, something I've had to give up on, because now that I'm well enough to function in a job I'm too old to find an employer who would take me.
I'm 57 and will turn 58 in November. Some of my cousins have actually retired from their jobs by now. The fact is that just as people with disabilities compete in Paralympic Games rather than the regular Olympic Games, people with disabilities training for professions are not in the same race as people without disabilities. About the time of my graduation with my second B.A. I was having another episode of depression, so the night before the graduation ceremony I asked my mother for money to buy a frame for my diploma, which she was reluctant to give me at first but still gave me, and I was able to frame it and place the diploma where I could see it and think, "Oh yes, I actually did this," every time I passed by and saw the diploma. This may not seem important to people who don't doubt their own self-worth, but to people who either get through college on probation or can't get a reference from a professor because her marks are too average, it can be capital. You should rejoice that you made it in spite of the obstacles you had to overcome rather than feel diminished by those obstacles. You have more merit than people who had no hurdles in their paths. BRAVO. And keep up the good work.
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