Love, Love Me Do: Learning and Using the Love Languages of People with Disabilities

Hello, readers,

Confession time: I’m happily addicted to personality tests, quizzes, and any books that allow readers to delve into who they are and why they behave as they do. Now of course, I have to be careful to temper that with attention to my spirit; too much of anything is not good. Plus, in the triangle of body (physical body, biological needs and responses), soul (personality, strengths, weaknesses, and favorite things, to name a few) and spirit (one’s relationship with and to the Divine), soul cannot trump spirit. If it does, you run the risk of becoming self-absorbed. Having said that: yup, I still love personality stuff. I read my American Girl Quiz Book repeatedly, flip straight to the quiz pages in any magazine, and bought Kevin Leman’s Have a New You by Friday in part because for me, it was a fun read.

One of the other personality dimensions I love, and that has helped me understand myself and others better, is the “love languages” dimension. If you’re not familiar with love languages, they’ve been popularized in Christian circles (and outside them, to some extent) by author Gary Chapman. There are five love languages: affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts. Each person “speaks” at least one, though a lot of people are “bilingual.” The love language you “speak” is the way that you most want and need to receive love. For example, my status as a word-lover might clue you in to the fact that in order to feel loved, I need to hear you tell me I’m special and important to you. And not just what psychologists call “canned praise”–I need to hear the specific things I have done well, or that you like. And criticism? I can take it, but too much, too fast, or over too long a period, and well–you could give me a diamond necklace, but I would doubt you loved me. I’d even doubt you LIKED me.

What’s the point to all this? No, I didn’t get a degree in marriage and family counseling overnight (though I have considered exploring that field more). The point is: how do we show love to the people with disabilities in our lives? I’m not asking IF we love them. I’d venture to say that most people with disabilities, at least in America, have at least one person in their lives who absolutely loves them (and if not, they should, and we should show our love by making that happen). And of course, every single person in this world, disability or not, is adored by Jesus Christ, who speaks all love languages fluently and perfectly. I’m asking, do we always know how to show love to people with disabilities? Are we doing things that we think show love, but to them, do not? And how can we improve on our use of their love languages?

I’d like to propose that because of the status of “disability” in the world–something that is unfortunate, pitiable, and undesirable, and often results in segregation and deflated expectations–love languages may get ignored or trumped. For example, let’s say a child with a disability–we’ll call him Henry–has a primary love language of receiving gifts. Now, granted, this language is tricky because parents with children who speak this language tend to think, “Oh, great, I have to go out and buy them the latest, greatest stuff, or they’ll think I hate them.” But the truth is, as I learned from Chapman and other fellow Christians, giving gifts doesn’t have to mean the latest gadget or toy. It could mean something as simple as a candy bar, or a flower you picked from your garden, or a cool rock shaped like Texas. It could mean giving the person something you made for them, like a blanket (which then becomes the child’s treasured security blanket) or a box to hold treasures.

But, let’s say Henry has a disability, and his parents don’t quite understand how to integrate that with love language. They may end up using gifts as bribery to get him to cooperate at therapy or at the doctor’s office. Or they may take away gifts for noncompliance. Now, that’s not to say legitimate misbehavior at therapy shouldn’t be disciplined–it should. But do you see what happened? The way that Henry hears “I love you” has been tied inextricably to discipline/punishment, so that what he may be hearing is, “Mom and Dad’s love must be earned” or “Whether I get love depends on how I act in therapy.”

Okay, so maybe that one was easy. Let’s get a little tougher. Our next person with a disability, we’ll call Jane. Jane’s love language is acts of service. Now, don’t misunderstand–she’ll do chores or homework or whatever she’s asked, at least as much as any other kid her age would. But she feels loved when, say, Dad says, “How about I unload the dishwasher today, hon?” or when Mom gives her a ride home from a school activity so she doesn’t have to ride the big, loud bus. Or when Nana comes over and announces, “Jane, I baked your favorite brownies.”

But how could disabiltiy sabotage that? The first way I can think of is one little word: INDEPENDENCE. As in, maybe Jane’s therapists have stressed over and over to her parents that in order to be independent (thus fitting some pre-determined societal model of success) Jane must do as much as she can for herself, all the time. Fine–surely Jane wants to be independent, if for no other reason than she knows it will please adults. But what happens if, for example, one particular task is difficult for her, and she asks for help? Or even asks an adult to do it for her? Maybe the adult (parent, grandparent, whoever), doesn’t refuse, or maybe they do. But whether they do or not, Jane will be scolded for it the next time she goes to therapy. And she will learn that the way she feels loved is totally unacceptable. And, should she be told that having a dishwasher, rather than washing dishes by hand 20 minutes after a meal, or leaving her bed unmade for more than 20 minutes, is “taking the easy way out,” that message will be further cemented. In fact, Jane might learn to think of herself as lazy and unwilling to be independent–just because she requested love the “wrong” way.

One more example, okay? Contestant #3, as it were, we’ll call Kieran. Kieran’s love language happens to be words of affirmation. He needs to know exactly what is lovable about him to feel loved. Now, I’m going to do what I’d do if I were teaching in a classroom at this point. I’m going to back off and ask, I gave you the love language. You tell me how disability could be used to sabotage it.

Right. The language gets sabotaged if, more often than praise, Kieran hears what he’s doing wrong, or what he needs to “practice.” And no, this doesn’t have to be “mean.” It could be as simple as a parent constantly saying, “Kieran, you need to go down stairs alternating feet,” or “Kieran, you need to sit up straight,” more than he or she talks about Kieran’s strengths, or even how he has improved in these areas. You know that saying about flies, honey, and vinegar? Yeah, well, if it’s true honey, rather than canned praise, that goes a long way with therapy, doctor’s appointments, and the other annoyances of Disability Land.

Physical touch and quality time, we won’t go into, because you guys can probably come up with your own examples by now. But you get the point. Every person with a disability has a love language, and if you listen, they will express it to you. (Yes, even those whose disabilities affect speech will tell you, if you listen). The key is to use that love language, and not let disability sabotage it.

Have you loved a person with a disability today? 🙂


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