I used to help with a club for people with learning disabilities. It met once a week in a room belonging to a Baptist church. The club was founded and run by a lovely man whose son had Downes Syndrome although his son didn’t live at home and only rarely visited. However, week after week, a small group of us met and, I can tell you, that the helpers got as much out of it and perhaps more than the club members.
I originally decided to help because I felt called to do so but also because I thought it would be a good service. What a joke! The blessings I received from the club members far outweighed anything I contributed. The helpers took turns running the meeting and I’ll never forget one in particular. I realised that people with learning disabilities often have concrete thinking and abstract ideas can be difficult. We often talked about Jesus but how could he become real to our club members? So, I found lots of different images of Jesus from art on the internet, downloaded them, printed and laminated them. They were only small pictures but I had quite a pile of them. I spread them over a table and I remember the look of joy on faces as we looked at them and as each person got to choose their favourite to take home.
A simple example of a blessing I received. One of the club members came up to me at the end of a meeting, stood in front of me and said “I really like you!” I was so moved and it took me a while to work out why. I realised that it was something we never say. I would never think of going up to a friend and simply saying “I really like you!” I would just assume that the friend knows that and, anyway, it would feel strange to do it – but the way this kind and genuine compliment made me feel was such a lovely lesson. I realised that I was learning how to love and appreciate others from our club members and that I was a novice compared to them.
There was no other support from the church although we were grateful for the room. However, once a year, some of the ladies organised a Christmas party. They decorated the church hall and we all brought in cakes and biscuits and mince pies as well as organising some games. It was always a lovely occasion.
During one particular Christmas party, one-by-one, individuals started to come into the hall, help themselves to chairs and then go out without acknowledging us or telling us what was happening. One of the helpers ascertained that there was a carol concert rehearsal in the church upstairs and that they were short of chairs. This went on for some time. People trooped in and out but not one of them acknowledged us. It was as if we weren’t there.
I felt very uneasy about this but couldn’t put my finger on why. Then it came to me why no one came up to explain or apologise or even to wish our club members a Happy Christmas – it was because they were learning disabled. For any other party or meeting, permission would have been asked and apologies given but, it seemed, that people with learning disabilities were not offered that common courtesy.
I have seen it over and over again, especially when I went on to work in learning disabilities. These lovely and special people are often not treated with even basic dignity. I thought Christian people would be different but I was wrong. What is wrong with us?
One last word. Whenever there was an open day or outreach at the church and a board of activities was put on display, which club do you think had pride of place? You guessed it and I use the word ‘pride’ on purpose. Our club members were ignored and forgotten by the church for 99% of the time but picked up when they were useful.
Don’t be like this.
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”