Based on the Citizen Advocacy model, Do For One’s mission is to develop and support freely given relationships for people with disabilities. By selectively matching one person with disabilities in need of companionship or advocacy with another person who enjoys the more ordinary privileges in life, we promote healthier communities and richer lives. As coordinator, I have been reflecting on the fears and expectations that many people with disabilities are experiencing when entering into relationships. While I’ve been somewhat prepared for the fears that advocates might have in responding to someone in need, what I was less prepared for is the fear that people with disabilities have with this idea of relating to someone who is both not a paid staff worker and non-disabled.
Recently, I was at a support group which consisted of about 35 adults with intellectual disabilities. In clarifying the type of service Do For One offers, one staff member asked the group, “How many of you have ever had an unpaid / non-disabled friend?” Once it was clarified that she was not asking about friendly paid staff or others who have a disability receiving the same services: not a single person raised their hand.
This experience and other recent individual conversations reminds me, while those who are more privileged are fearful of the unknown when entering the relationship, there are many people with disabilities who are also understandably fearful of being in relationship with a non-staff / non-disabled person. There seems to be an underlying question coming from many wounded people: “Am I really lovable like that?”
However, this realization must not discourage us! After all, the most precious gifts in life are often in the most difficult things. So, what are some key concepts and beliefs that help guide us through the social dynamics and to discover the gifts found in relationships between people with and without disabilities?
First, it’s important to realize that people with disabilities are all individuals with totally different circumstances and should be defined more by who they are and their individual story than by the fact that they have a disability. People’s needs and interests will differ widely and therefore we must be prepared to respond accordingly; this is why relationship is at the core of how we respond to people’s need for support. Theology Professor and Disability Advocate, Nancy Eiesland helped me to understand that people with disabilities don’t identify with each other because of their similarities in bodily or mental function, but they identify with each other because of the way that society at large treats them, namely with stigmatizing values and exclusion. Therefore, people need to be known and treated as individuals in order to help discover and foster their own God-given purpose. It’s also important to recognize that people with disabilities still face oppressive circumstances and need people who are in good standing within a community (and not just in human services) to be great allies, helping to reverse stigma and the often downward spiral of further wounding experiences and bring their personal gifts to the community which then lifts the social status of the individual.
Secondly, many wounded people, who have developed an expectation of failure toward relationships, will not know how to grow a relationship, keep that relationship going and maintain a hopeful outlook of the continued growth of that relationship as the relationship ebbs and flows. At times, it may not be fully reciprocal and a wounded person will need someone to be understanding and patient through the many discouraging thoughts of feeling unlovable. People who have been severely wounded will need support for the rest of their life, and so there is no “one-time fix-all” solution. This does not mean that we are to fulfill all the obligations of support. However, it is important to recognize that it is not about finding one big answer that solves it all, but more about the many little, but persistent responses to needs that will reverse a person’s expectations of rejection and help them find the road to healing.
Lastly, it is of crucial importance to believe that such relationships are possible! After all, the dreams and desires of people with and without disabilities are basically the same. We all have basic desires in our lives for love, security, and a place to belong. Most of these needs can only be met through freely given and personal relationships. Relationships between people with and without disabilities are even more likely to happen when people are invited into them by others who’ve done it themselves and when people are asked to do something for another person that they already feel equipped for and are passionate about.
These relationships can come at a cost, but a highly worthy one. We are standing with people who are always at risk of being marginalized, so we ourselves, to some degree, become marginalized too. Relationships across these barriers are transformative, being stretched beyond what we never thought would be possible, developing courage, patience, humor, and forgiveness in ways that would have never otherwise been possible. It is here we find that we too are needy people asking the same question about ourselves: “Am I really lovable like that?” It is here we find Life’s most profound Passions and Joy. It is here we find what Christian tradition has called the “Hidden Christ.”
Inspired by Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Do For One invites us to treasure an opportunity to align ourselves with those who are considered least important in our society, not only because they’ve become our friend, but because we realize that such an opportunity is sacred.