Much as I may try to deny it or hide from it, I have a very deep and abiding passion for working with “disabled” youth. And yes, I did put that in quotation marks for a reason, one near and dear to my heart. I HATE that label.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, etc., are legitimate diagnoses that are gravely misunderstood in many ways by our culture at large. I understand why we call such things “disabilities.” The label is meant to help us understand that developmental delays and physical handicaps are the culprit for struggles of those with these diagnoses; I do appreciate that. I still hate the label. Whether we openly speak of it or not, we hear the label and assume that means the same thing for every individual: They can’t do it. Whatever “it” is.
I don’t like the word, “Can’t,” either by the way. Often, I've been told a student can't do something; we've worked on it, reframed the lesson, taken a break from it, and come back to it only to find that actually they could do it. I know barriers that will always remain in the way. Some people truly will never function at the level we would label, "Normal." We have a tendency to decide for them without making the extra effort to assist them, and that is what I hate about "can't."
"Disability" tends to blind us to ability in individuals. I had a great-aunt that I absolutely adored, and she adored me. She had Down Syndrome, but I didn't understand what that meant. I just knew she was sweet and loved me. I didn't look at her and think of her as odd or different or unable to do things. I knew she loved to draw loops. I knew I felt better when I was around her. She wasn't really verbal, but that didn't matter to me. She was my first exposure to any sort of disability and I miss her a great deal.
I think that my beloved great-aunt is a far bigger part of how I see disability than even I understand. The way I viewed her and interacted with her is really not that much different than how I have viewed disability throughout my life. I used to ask my mom to sign me up for the week of camp that would let me be there at the same time as the special needs campers; they were my favorite. And I looked at them as full of potential just as my great-aunt was. Throughout my life, God has granted me many opportunities to work with special needs youth; I have embraced those opportunities because I honestly just love the people I interact with in doing that.
I love to read stories of people who have overcome long odds, people who have gone out of their way to make sure a special needs person was welcomed and included, even the diagnoses themselves. I love to watch the kids I have worked with beam with pride as they grasp something they've been told they can't do. I love to hear the hearts of moms and dads who have given so much for their kiddos who "can't." Sometimes those hearts hurt so much; they want the best for their kiddos, and they do the best they can. But sometimes it's just not "enough" in the eyes of those who don't live that life. Sometimes there just isn't anything more that can be done. It is a lonely, discouraging place to be.
Look around you. Do you see the "disabled" and turn a blind eye to their potential, to their struggle, to the struggle of those who care the most about them? Do you feel helpless to do anything for or with them because you don't have any training? Don't let that hold you back. Well before I even knew there was such a thing as Down Syndrome, I could sit with my great-aunt and enjoy the beautiful, endless loops she drew. It doesn't take training to sit and listen to a parent's hurting heart. It doesn't take training to ignore messes and noise and chaos to love on those around you. You can't fix Autism. You can't take away Down Syndrome. You aren't going to make this all better; no amount of training in the world is going to change that fact. So don't use your lack of training as an excuse; use it as an opportunity to say, "Teach me." Simple things like admitting you don't know anything about the situation but you want to learn how to be a support go a long way.
And just like grief or trauma, don't be put out by a person who isn't up for that. It takes a lot of energy and brain power to care for any child let alone one who has heightened difficulties. They aren't pushing you away to be mean; if they're not educating you, it's because they need to focus their attention elsewhere. But that isn't an excuse for you either. You can still observe, see needs, and meet them quietly in a way that doesn't draw attention to you or what you are doing. You can pray. You can educate yourself on what disability ministry looks like, what is effective, what causes more harm than good. You don't need a doctorate to care for those around you. You need a willing heart and eyes that see people as people not as diagnoses.