by David Morstad
Several years ago, an interdisciplinary team meeting was held concerning a man with a developmental disability. The man in this case, I’ll call him R.J., had spent a lifetime being described with various euphemisms. Challenging behaviors, interfering behaviors, behavior difficulties. Over time, he developed what has become one of the most life-limiting characteristics a person with a developmental disability can have: The “severe reputation”.
At this particular meeting, a decision would be reached. Would R.J. be recommended to move from his current home, a large residential facility, to a small community-based setting in a quiet neighborhood, or not? The summary statement was clear. “Due to R.J.’s continuing behavior difficulties, a move to a community setting is not recommended at this time.”
In the professional judgment of the team, R.J. was simply not ready. Historically, the “readiness” of people with disabilities for one thing or another has been given a great deal of attention. As professionals, we routinely judged them not ready for living with the rest of us because of their behavior or medical needs. We judged them not ready for jobs, and placed them in perpetual “pre-vocational” programs. And here is a helpful hint. Whenever you see the syllable “pre” added to anything having to do with people who have disabilities, remember this adage: “Pre” means “never”.
But then something remarkable happened. After years of being found not ready, R.J. had a new interdisciplinary team with new eyes and new thinking. They carefully considered R.J.’s life, personality, and, yes, the full scope of his behavior. Their summary statement was very different. “R.J. has clearly and consistently communicated by his behavior that he does not like living in his current setting, and the team feels he would enjoy a higher quality of life in a smaller, quiet, integrated setting in the community.”
And they were right. He’s been living happily in the community – not far from my own home, in fact – for years.
Some have suggested that it’s not people like R.J. who need to be made ready for integrated settings and everyday life. Rather, they say, it’s professionals, interdisciplinary teams, and the general public who need to be made ready for inclusive and welcoming environments. I’m not so sure about that. A different theory emerges in my mind. Perhaps readiness, especially as it applies to this situation, is a complete myth all around. Maybe nobody is ever ready for what the future holds, but we do things anyway. Maybe young couples who are starting families are in no way ready for the full impact of parenting, but they leap into it anyway. Maybe not all of the 65.9% of US high school graduates who enroll in college are ready for that experience, but off they go anyway. Maybe people with disabilities who have lived in institutions their whole lives are not ready to move into the community, but they do it anyway. After all, how can anyone truly be ready for something which they have never experienced? Maybe congregations that don’t know much about supporting members with severe disabilities open their doors anyway, share some coffee with their new friends, and begin a new voyage. Call it a leap of faith or simply doing the right thing, but sometimes it just boils down to, “Ready or not…here we go.”
As people of faith, we ought to find ourselves on familiar ground here. Doing good things that we’re not quite ready to do is a manifestation of grace. R.J.’s team knew it, employers are discovering it, and congregations everywhere are becoming even more welcoming places for people with disabilities. We jump in and do what’s right, and we figure things out as we go, knowing that confession and forgiveness will abound along the way.