An oldie but a Goodie
I can get awfully frustrated when I don’t blog for a while. I need to remember 200 words can give a punch just as much as 500 words. My goal is to do that. As I come up with new material, I decided to post an oldie but a goodie about my college friends. I love this story, and it’s a great reminder how to interact with someone living with a disability. If you ever get nervous about getting to know a new friend, this story is for you. Enjoy!
Circle of friends
Before they got to know me, Scott and Melissa were afraid.
Now we are friends.
It’s my first night of class, and I’m late. I wheel into the classroom and put my laptop on an empty table. Looking around at the faces, I wonder who is who.
We are in a newly formed cohort at Nazarene Bible College and will spend at least the next year together. We already know something about each other because we posted our autobiographies in the online classroom. Who is Carrie? I wonder. Scott? Gary? His post caught my eye. He sounded fun, and I thought we’d get along.
“Welcome Tait,” the professor says. “We will be doing a lot of small group activities tonight, so please find a group.” I join Gary and Carrie. We have a great time that night. Carrie understood me very well, and Gary quickly caught on, despite a hearing lost.
During the next six weeks, I had an opportunity to work with all of my classmates. Well, almost everyone. Scott never offered to sit with me. Instead, he always sat next to the window never giving me eye contact or saying hello during breaks. I guess I didn’t reach out to him either. That’s my fault. Building a friendship is always a two-way street, and Scott and I were about to find out that we were about to become close friends.
In our next class, we were assigned to small groups for the entire class, and Scott and I ended up in the same group. It didn’t take long to become friends. Scott and I always arrived to class early, and he helped me set up my computer and get out my books. We talked about our day, our families, and the week’s assignments. The class work sometimes got very personal, and the discussions helped us to deepen our relationship. By the time Biblical Leadership was over, Scott and I were true brothers in Christ.
There is one more piece to this puzzle to this story that needs to be put in place. Melissa joined our cohort at the start of our second class, and I thought she was an odd duck. She was very vocal in class and was eager to learn. Because she wasn’t in the other class, Melissa and I didn’t work together. Now that the professor had us divided into groups in this class, there wasn’t any time for Melissa and I to get to know each other.
One class period, Melissa admitted she was really afraid of me. I was the first person who had a disability she ever encountered, and she didn’t know how to interact with me. What if she didn’t understand me? What if she said something that would offend me? She saw other people interacting with me but felt too inadequate to approach me.
“ The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7
Melissa mentioned something like that in one of her online posts. She had read one of my posts and really liked it. How, she wondered, could I have this severe disability but yet have so much to say in the online classroom. When I read Melissa’s comments, I realized that she might need another person to help her overcome her fears toward me and suggested she sit with Carrie and me one session. Carrie and I had continued to develop our relationship, and I thought she could help facilitate our time together.
We all sat together the next class period, and Melissa began to see what other people saw within me. She learned how to look beyond my wheelchair and my unclear speech patterns and even became someone I could count on when I needed help around campus.
Melissa, Scott and my other classmates learned an ancient lesson: that people look at the outer appearance while God looks at the heart. People may be in a wheelchair and talk funny like me, but that doesn’t mean they can’t think, learn, or run their own lives. In turn, I learned how to open myself up and let people get to know me. Relationships are always a two-way street. If I don’t open myself up, people can’t get to know me no matter how much they would like to. Here are some tips how you can get to know someone with a disability.
- Take the time to listen. People notice two things when they meet me: my wheelchair and my speech. There is no way to get around the fact that I have Cerebral Palsy and that I’m slower than most people. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think for myself or have something to contribute.
Communication can be the most frustrating with someone who has a speech disability. “Time” can sound like “dime”. My speech can my intimidating for first time listeners, and both Scott and Melissa told be straight out that was a major huddle for them when they first met me. Scott was almost forced into learning how to understand me when we were in our small group. He quickly learned he could understand me when he sat down and really listened. When communication opened up, Scott and I could build a relationship. (It’s even easier when people know the subject. Class usually centered on one or two subjects, so I most likely wasn’t taking about last night’s game when we were talking about Moses and the burning bush.)
- Be patient. We live fast-paced lives and we often don’t slow down to connect with each other. “Lord, give me patience and give it to me now!” we pray. Sometimes he answers our prayers by sending us a hyper active person…or someone with a disability.Melissa was someone who was very active and vocal, and I think that was part of our problem. Much like turning their ears into my speech, people need to slow down and give me a chance to participate in activities. Many times when we teamed up a class activity, Melissa would be the first one to find the book we needed or organized our group. By the time I had my own ideas figured out, she was six jumps ahead of me and moving toward our goal. When working with someone with a disability, let him help as much as he can. Give him one task to do on the project. Melissa learned how to slow down and let me do some of the work myself instead of jumping in and taking over. Both of us learned how to use each other’s energy, got our assignments completed, and became friends.
- Be helpful, not harmful. I’m very independent and have my own way of doing things. I have my daily routines down pat. I like help getting whenever I can, but sometimes people can get in my way. They’re well meaning, I’m sure, but they can interfere with what I’m trying to accomplish. When I was in college, I always juggling things such as homework, getting to class, taking breaks and so forth. I had my ways of doing things. Wheeling into the bookstore and grabbing a candy bar and soda may look as if I need help doing it, but I have my system. I know exactly how to get what I want, and any help just might get in the way. My friends learned what I wanted and how I needed it to be set up. Scott became my right hand man when setting up for class. He learned how I needed my computer set up and where to put my book, and I was able to let him do it. He was glad to serve, and I was happy to have someone to lend a helping hand.
It’s two years later, and I’m late again. I’m wheeling up the sidewalk, and I see two friends coming toward me: Scott and Melissa. “Hey Tait,” they say. “We were just coming to look for you. The graduation BBQ is just about to start. Let’s grab you a plate.”
Graduation weekend wouldn’t have been the same without Scott and Melissa. Scott was my right-hand man through the ceremonies and even held the microphone for me when I spoke a few words at our convocation. Yes, my two friends and I had come a long ways since our first classes together. I know my time at college wouldn’t have been the same without Scott and Melissa’s friendship. I’m sure they would agree.