The Mentally and Physically Disabled – Teaching us to be Truly Human


Parents of special needs children are special people, plain and simple.  As a therapist I’ve worked with families of children diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, or who simply display behaviors most of the world can’t understand.  I hate using labels to describe people and the more you get to know the families of special needs kids the more you understand why labels are only useful for the medical world, not the life of these children or the families in which they’re loved.  The same can be said of individuals who struggle with physical disabilities.  I’ve had the pleasure of teaching these individuals as young adults in a college setting and I’m always struck with how well they work through their particular situation in order to be successful in the class.  People with disabilities, mental and physical, often demonstrate what’s best about being human; the fact we’re responsible for writing our own narrative.  We don’t have to follow a life story someone else writes for us.

Most people carry around in their heads a life script that describes the projected course of their lives.  When we’re 18 years of age we believe we will go to college or some other school to acquire skills for employment, meet someone we can love and then after some time marry, and eventually have children of our own.  We believe these children will be healthy, go to school, make friends, and eventually do the same things we’ve done thus establishing a family consisting of mom, dad, children, and grandchildren.  It’s the narrative we carry in our heads believing life MUST follow that path.  Yet what I often discover when counseling or ministering to people is this storyline frequently changes.  Some life event causes the story to take an unexpected turn and the individual sitting in the counseling room struggles to make sense of that shift.  In the end my job is to help them rewrite their own narrative so it’s meaningful for them.

People with disabilities and their families have had to write their own narrative from the start.  They’ve had to forge a path very different from their peers and create a story allowing them to accomplish things in unexpected ways.  Importantly these families have to remain solution focused and advocate for one another and the children they’re parenting.  Sure, the disabled may not be able to accomplish the many “traditional” successes other people achieve like working at professions requiring particular physical and mental skills, but they can accomplish many amazing things.  Importantly we need to recognize the things they accomplish are not “less” of an accomplishment, they’re as grand a human achievement as any.  What matters most is the stories their lives tell continues to speak about the majesty of the human person, created in the image of God, and capable of transcending the limitations this fallen world places upon us.

I’ve discovered it’s important to keep from feeling sorry for these wonderful people.  Yes, I recognize the challenges they face and the difficulties they encounter.  In particular, I see the self-sacrifice parents make to ensure their children write their own narrative about what life means and how to accomplish the good things God intends for them.  If anything, they’re an inspiration about what it means to be a parent regardless of a child’s conditions.  Oh if those of us raising children without disabilities learned to love and give as these parents do!  No, I don’t want to feel sorry for these people but help them in crafting this new narrative regarding the human condition.

In the end I want to say simply this.  If you’re a parent of a disabled child or if you’re disabled yourself you have a story to tell the world that’s unique, challenging, but also inspirational.  Your accomplishments matter and speak to those who aren’t disabled about the greatness of being human.  I work with a woman who has no arms or legs yet everyday she comes to work advising graduate students about their program of study and has a magnificent Christian motivational speaking ministry.  You can find information about her here if you like.  I constantly learn from her example.  I’m encouraged by her bravery, and inspired by her commitment to live her life to its fullest.  I have a student who has multiple sclerosis who attends classes at the university.  This young man is a top student, fully participates in discussions, is an officer in the on-campus club for our department, and is going to graduate school next year.  With the support of his family he is accomplishing more than many undergraduate students accomplish who have no disabilities.

So let me close this brief dialogue with this simple thought.  Thank you to all the families of disabled children and to all the disabled individuals who every day show us being human is not so much the condition in life you start with but rather how much we’re willing to transcend that condition and display great virtues like fortitude and courage.  In a sense we’re all “disabled” because our human condition is not that which God intended it to be.  The fact we all live in a fallen broken world means in some way we’re all struggling to be the very thing we were created to be.  Yet it’s you, those writing your own life story about accomplishment that reminds the rest of us who too easily fall into the standard story line that we were meant to be more than we are.  God bless you for being inspirational families and people, and God bless you for the great things he will do through you.


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