By Brian M. Junkes SVD
Once a upon a time in a kindergarten class, there was a young boy, who at first seemed like other boys. He had friends and enjoyed playing games with other children. What made this boy different was that he had trouble speaking and communicating properly. And class assignments were typically not completed as the teacher wanted.
That little boy was me. One day when my mother came to pick me up from class, the teacher flat out told her, “I don’t know what else I can do for your son. I think he is retarded.” What the teacher did not realize is that I had a speech-language learning disability.
I struggled in school for a couple more years. My mom searched and fought with the administration until she found a teacher and program for children with learning disabilities. With the help of that program, I was officially mainstreamed by sixth grade and only needed accommodations that allowed me to have extended time on tests and assignments.
I do not remember much of the struggles from when I was a child. Some who know me now would never imagine I struggled to speak during elementary school. Yet, my learning disability still affects me today.
People do not need to treat me differently. I need what we all need: someone with an open mind who will listen. My teacher who helped me overcome my speech-language learning disability once told me that having a learning disability does not mean that I cannot learn or that my mind is disabled, it simply means that I learn differently.
I have come to see that not only do I learn differently, but I also understand, think and perceive the world differently. My disability is a gift.
My learning disability does not define me; it is only a part of my story and who I am, not everything there is about me.
Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important, but it is not enough if the mentality does not change as well, if we do not overcome a widespread culture that continues to produce inequalities, preventing people with disabilities from actively participating in ordinary life.Pope Francis, International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2019
Many people with disabilities know how it feels to be treated with insensitivity, to have others force upon us what they think we can and cannot do. We know the struggles of discrimination and having to persevere to realize our goals and life dreams. I believe my own experience of having a disability has ingrained in me not only a strong work ethic but also determination.
My struggles guide me when I help others. When I was a student at Divine Word College, I helped students who were learning English. I could identify with the students as they faced the struggles of learning another language. When I tutored them, I used strategies that I remember from when I was a child. My elementary school teacher helped me with sounds and pronunciation.
I know the feeling of working hard to improve yet being ignored, belittled and told that my effort is not enough. It is in those moments of recognition—and identifying with the struggles of others—that Christ becomes present. Christ is present in brothers and sisters with disabilities.
St. Paul wrote about the challenges and constraints that he faced for Christ, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). St. Paul also wrote about how people perceived Christ and what he suffered as foolishness and unconceivable to grasp, yet Christ overcame death and has the power to save. “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).
There still is much work that needs to be done to overcome discrimination and insensitivity towards people with visible and invisible disabilities. Whether it’s in the form of a physical injury, autism, ADHD or a speech-language learning disability, there is still a lot that needs to be done to include such members in our communities and help people with disabilities use and develop God-given gifts.
Pope Francis delivered a message on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2019. He said, “Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important, but it is not enough if the mentality does not change as well, if we do not overcome a widespread culture that continues to produce inequalities, preventing people with disabilities from actively participating in ordinary life.”
Our institutions and communities can implement policies and make resources available for people like myself with disabilities, but if attitudes, prejudices and assumptions about people with disabilities do not change, then everything that was implemented means nothing. If brothers and sisters with disabilities are still seen as weak, stupid and “special,” if we are seen only for what we cannot do, then we cannot reach our full potential and fully participate as active members in the community.
People with disabilities are fellow human beings with dignity, bestowed with God-given gifts that help to build the reign of God.