Ministering To Teenagers With Disabilities – Part 2
Be sure to check out PART 1 before diving into these practical ideas.
Some Things To Keep In Mind
While not an exhaustive list, here are some things to consider when you have students with disabilities in your ministry.
Losing a sense does not mean the other senses become more acute to make up for it. The classic misconception is that the senses of persons who are blind become more acute to compensate so they have more acute hearing and sense of touch. Not true. However, because persons who are blind rely more heavily on other senses for information, they can learn to use those senses more effectively.
If a teen has someone assisting him, talk to the teen, not the assistant.
There will be awkward moments. You’ll ask a blind teen if she filled out the “green” form. You’ll ask a deaf student if he’s heard the latest CD from Squeakratz.
Some disabilities seriously affect the student’s ability to communicate. A blind student can’t read your body language. A deaf student may need a sign language interpreter; she won’t hear you calling for her when she’s not looking in your direction.
You might have a sibling of a student with a disability in your group. The sibling will have his own set of issues. Maybe he’s cheerfully taken on the responsibility of helping his sister or brother and accepts the unique family dynamics. Or the sibling may bitterly resent the real or perceived additional attention and family resources devoted to his sibling.
Having a teen with a disability invariably stresses family dynamics. There’s the monetary expense of special education and adaptive technology. There’s the emotional stress everyone experiences in dealing with the disability. And since the teenage years are a time of change and transition for everyone, there’s no finally coming to grips with a disability and getting settled—there will always be things that come up and require adjusting.
Teens with disabilities go through all five stages of grief over and over as new situations present themselves. A young child may not fully appreciate that she is different from the other kids. But starting with the teenage years, the child has her nose rubbed in the differences every day. Major rites of passage can turn into significant emotional crises as, for example, when the visually impaired teen who’s been getting by realizes that she’s just flat out not going to get a drivers license like everyone else in her peer group—not ever.
Anger can be even more of an issue than usual with teens. Anger with help when you don’t need it, or no help when you do need it. Anger with malfunctioning and poorly designed adaptive technology. Anger with junk left on the floor posing a trip hazard or blocking a passage in a wheelchair. Anger with not being able to hear or understand the conversation. Anger with the person at fault for the accident that caused the disability. Anger at God for the congenital or disease-caused disability. Anger with too much attention. Anger with too little attention. Anger vented on you with no warning just because you happen to be handy.
Activities of daily life can be more difficult and time-consuming. Getting dressed is harder if you can’t tie your shoes. Putting on makeup is more difficult if you can’t see to apply it.
A student may be away much of the time at a special school. Try to stay in touch and make her welcome when she is home on break.
Some disabilities may have physical disfigurements as direct or secondary effects. Persons who are blind may develop “band keratopathy” where the eye gets a filmy appearance. Misshapen or missing limbs are hard to conceal. A student with Down’s syndrome may have slanted eyes and stubby fingers. In our beauty-obsessed culture, these may be off-putting to the other students (in fact, they may be off-putting to you until you get used to them).
Necessary adaptive technologies and techniques may be either inherently embarrassing, or they may cause embarrassment if they fail. It’s bad enough a teen has to worry about acne or whether his hair is okay without having to worry about his leg bag leaking or getting trapped in an improperly designed “accessible” restroom where he can’t open the door once he’s inside.
Asking for help can become tiresome. A teen may pass on an event just because she is tired of having to have someone bring her a plate of food when she can’t maneuver the chow line, ask for help with opening doors, or strain to see or hear what’s going on.
Parents may seem overprotective. They may have good reason to be. Do your best to accommodate their concerns. They’re not eager for their teenager to be part of your learning curve. The parents and the kids are the people who have to live with the long term consequences if something goes wrong. Chances are they’ve heard “Trust me, I know what’s best for your teen” from people with much glossier credentials and experience than you; chances are they may have been burned badly by some of these people as well.
Comments like, “someday medical science will come up with something that will fix [whatever],” or “God would heal you if you…[insert one or more of the following phrases: ‘had enough faith,’ ‘prayed hard enough,’ ‘confessed all your unconfessed sin,’ ‘gave your life to him’]” are not helpful.
Find an empathetic, same-sex staff member who can devote time outside of youth group settings to establish a positive, one-on-one relationship with the student. Make sure that person understands that once he has a relationship with that kid, the student may become attached to the hip of the leader he bonds with. This is not unusual. When the young person realizes that a particular adult cares about and understands him, she’ll most likely gravitate to that adult regularly.
Talk often and openly to the parents. Ask these questions:
- “What are your child’s most important interests?”
- “Are there any sensory needs or dislikes that we should know about?”
- “Is there anything that your child finds upsetting or uncomfortable?”
These questions can help you understand the social and intellectual level of the kid, as well as any situations that could perhaps trigger inappropriate behavior. Let the parents know how the student is doing in the group.
If parents think their presence is necessary, you should allow it. They know more than you do about their child’s situation, and they probably have legitimate concerns you’ll never really understand.
At the end of the day, for whatever reason, the teenager may not participate in your group. As long as you’ve made a good faith effort to welcome her and provide reasonable accommodations, that’s okay. In that event, do your best to keep up communication with her and her family. Every so often, exert yourself to extend an invitation if there’s some event you think would be of particular interest in which she can participate.
If you are in youth ministry long enough, a student with a disability will come into your group. How you and your group deal with the situation will tell you, and a watching world, a lot about yourselves.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.