Community service is on my mind today. My pastor just started a sermon series on spiritual gifts and how to use them, which I am excited about. He sent the church the link to a spiritual gifts inventory, so now I know my top three gifts and am looking forward to using them. In case you’re curious, those gifts are mercy, discernment, and knowledge. If you’re a Bible reader or just want to know more, check out 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and 1 Peter 4 for what those words/gifts mean in a Christian context.
Community service, using your gifts, loving your neighbor – those are all wonderful things. As to the loving your neighbor thing, the Bible even commands it, so even if I didn’t want to, I couldn’t get away with *not* doing it. (And trust me, I’ve got some “neighbors” I don’t like – you know what I’m talking about. The kind of people who drive you nuts with their apocalyptic theories, swear you’re crazy because you prefer cats over dogs, and leave their Christmas lights up until March 31). But there are some hazards to this community/spiritual service thing, and I bet you know what one such hazard is.
Yup, you’re right. I’m talking about when temporarily able-bodied people use people with disabilities as a way to “punch their cards,” so to speak. This is not the same thing as the caregiver or therapist who thinks they’re a hero for doing their job. It’s not the same as inspiration porn. However, it’s in the same neighborhood.
This phenomenon occurs when TAB people see people with disabilities primarily as “other,” or a marginalized group. They may or may not feel pity for PWDs, but they tend to see them as innocent, wounded, and in need of help or care, more than as actual people. When this happens, you might hear a TAB person say stuff like, “Oh, this is a fundraiser for The Disabled. We need to help and be compassionate toward The Disabled. My son Ben has a Friend With Special Needs, and I am so proud of Ben for extending the hand of friendship.”
Now, is it good for Ben to extend the hand of friendship? Yes. Is it good that TAB people want to help people with disabilities? Yes – mostly. The problem comes in when the person with the disability is treated like a project. I have read true stories about parents whose kids come over to play with classmates who have disabilities – as part of a community service or “kindness” project. Parents once ran a story from a mom who was flabbergasted when a fellow parent asked if her son could spend time with her son, who has a disability. Why? Not just for fun, not as a playdate…but because the TAB kid was about to undergo his bar mitzvah, and spending time with a PWD would be seen as a mitzvah, or good deed. Basically, the kid and his mom were looking for class credit.
It doesn’t even have to be that blatant, although mostly it is and it drives me up the wall. (*Healing breath* Love thy neighbor, love thy neighbor…) Sometimes this phenomenon happens because people really do want to help PWDs be part of the community, but their messages are mixed. A prime example is Night to Shine, a prom for “people with special needs” put on by the Tim Tebow Foundation. Does the foundation have good intentions? Yes, but they are still holding a segregated prom and asking for donations/assistance in the name of charity. (We’ll be talking more about this next month, especially since my own church is going to be an event location).
I cannot stress this enough: Spending time with, or even acting friendly toward, a PWD should not qualify as community service. Doing so does not make you a saint or a hero, and it does not mean you are using God-given gifts to the best of your ability. In fact, the idea that it does, smacks of ableism. Why? Because it keeps the line between “disabled” and “non-disabled” separate. It reinforces the idea that there is an “us” and “them.” In this case, PWDs are the “them.” They are people to be pitied, people who won’t have friends or experiences unless someone who is able (unlike “them”) steps up and helps out. This is not true, and the people who believe it is true should not get credit for it, no matter how benevolent their intentions.
I hear you. You might say, “Chick, you don’t get it. My loved one with a disability needs a night to shine and a prom of their own. I don’t care if my kid with a disability gets played with in the name of community service, just so long as he has a friend. You’re just saying this because you’re mildly disabled and offended.” Well, I understand you, but I disagree. First off, if you think I’m only saying this because I’m “mildly” affected, that’s pretty much the same as saying, “You’re not disabled enough to know what you’re talking about.” Trust me, I am. Mild, moderate, severe…I know people with all degrees of disabilities, and their loved ones, who would prefer not to be treated as community service credit.
As to what your loved one needs and how you obtain it – okay, I get it. But I ask you to think about this: if the only way your loved one is getting what they need, is through segregated interaction or someone else’s need to serve the community – is that fair to your loved one? What message are you sending? Because the message I often hear in situations like this is, “Unless someone else is serving/being charitable, they have no reason or desire to be around you.” That’s a dangerous message hiding behind noble intentions, folks. It’s sneakier than a snake in the grass, and it will come back to bite you.
So what should we do instead? Should we throw all charities and programs/events aimed at PWDs under the bus? No, but I think we should examine our intentions, the way we talk about what we’re doing, and the options we’re presenting. For instance:
-Don’t couch an event as for The Disabled. In fact, don’t even say “The Disabled.” That’s like saying “the Jews” or “the Muslims,” and lumping a whole population into one group. Now, sometimes that can be used as more a collective noun (“The Jews in our inter-faith organization believe this, the Christians believe that, and the Muslims believe that.”) But I think we can all sense it when somebody says The Disabled. They’re painting that group as the group of poor wounded lambs, the one you don’t want to be in. Stop it.
-If you are a teacher, pastor, imam, rabbi…DO NOT give credit for “being friends” with a PWD. Don’t couch it as a good deed, mitzvah, or activity that people should do to appease God, exercise their gifts of mercy, or otherwise help “those people over there.” You probably don’t mean to do that, but if you’re doing it, rethink why. Is it because you don’t have many PWDs in your classroom, congregation, or whatever? Is it because you don’t know how to integrate? Is it because you’ve never spent adequate time with a PWD – as a person and a friend? Then maybe this is the year to change that.
-If your congregation has a disability ministry, don’t paint it as especially heroic, or “messy” or “untidy.” Even PWDs paint these ministries that way. Joni Eareckson-Tada, who herself lives with quadriplegia, has called disability ministries messy and untidy. Does she mean it in a bad way? No; I think what she means is, “People don’t want to get involved in this ministry because they think it’s hard or messy or whatever.” But guess what? When you use those words, or when you dump praise on TAB people just for “ministering to” people with disabilities, you make us all look pathetic. Please, please don’t do it. (More on this little pitfall in a future post).
-Erase the line. Night to Shine, Best Buddies, college programs specifically for “special needs students”…they are well-intentioned. But too often, they reinforce the mentality “us” and “them.” Erase that line. If your college has such a program, go out of your way to mix up the groups. Get to know those students as real friends, and invite them out to go clubbing or to the movies (what? You think a lady with a disability doesn’t want a nice guy to buy her a Shirley Temple at the bar? Okay, I’m a teetotaler, but Baptist habits die hard). 🙂 If your rec center, church, or organization is having Night to Shine, that’s great. But while you’re at it, make clear that students with disabilities at your school are welcome at your prom (WITHOUT expecting a newspaper write-up for inviting them).
-Invite and encourage PWDs to serve. PWDs have gifts and skills, too – skills that need to be used. We are not perpetually needy, but we need to feel needed. Help a person with a disability in your church take a gifts inventory. Ask them what service projects interest them and then say, “Great! Can I pick you up at X time, Y location? We could sure use your help.”
Serving people with disabilities is part of what communities should do, but it should not be a charitable service. Instead, people with disabilities should be allowed to be part of the community they serve, first and foremost. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find you need to be served more than they do – and some day, they may need to be served, too. It’s all about an equal playing field and paying it forward to each other, so let’s do it.