As I Was Saying

Serving While Living with Disabilities

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

The aroma of coffee was wafting over plush seats and gentle banter at our favorite coffee shop when my husband, Eric, and I were approached by an older gentleman.

After a short conversation—with me communicating via a computerized voice machine and using a wheelchair for mobility—the man turned his back on me and asked Eric, “So . . . do you take care of her?” 

Eric looked at the man, smiled, and without missing a beat, replied, “Oh no. She’s my wife. She takes care of me.”

I’m thankful to be married to a man who doesn’t view my disabilities as a burden to be taken care of.  He sees my wheelchair, walker, and communication device simply as tools to live my life well, in the same way some folks wear glasses to help them see the world.

However, we’ve discovered that not everyone thinks this way. Not long ago in the foyer after church, I told a fellow parishioner about a new, albeit painful, medical treatment I’d recently undergone, explaining that I hoped it would help me relearn to walk. The woman turned to Eric. “You must have it so hard,” she said to him, oozing sympathy. “Let me give you a big hug!”

Unfortunately, many people equate disability with dependency. They see a person who lives with disabilities as someone who needs to be taken care of and served by others.

This need for care may indeed be true: it is a gift from God to have your genuine needs met through the service of another. A nurse comes to my home daily to help with personal care. And for two years after the injury that caused me to suddenly lose the ability to walk, our church family lovingly brought weekly meals to my family. I will never forget the love extended in our time of need. 

But it is equally true that every person is called to serve as they are able. In Mark 12, Jesus was watching crowds of people give money to the temple treasury when he saw an impoverished widow sacrificially give all she had. 

“Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

In the same way, regardless of whether we live with abundant abilities or significant disabilities, we are called to serve Christ by giving back what he has first given us.

This is one reason why I so deeply love the motto of the Christian Reformed Church’s Disability Concern’s Ministry: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves. 

God has shown me that while I may do things differently compared to those without disabilities, I don’t get a free pass to forego serving others using the talents God has given me. 

A little over a year ago, Eric rolled me up to the front of our church for the first time to lead a part of the worship service our congregation calls reconciliation. It’s a time where a layperson leads the congregation in confession, prayer, Scripture, and daily living directives. When I began speaking using my computerized voice, surprised expressions were smattered across the sanctuary.

However, this is a congregation of amazing people. They soon got used to me and how I communicate in the monthly reconciliation I lead and embraced me with great love. A couple of months ago, nearly a year after that first reconciliation, and about 27 months after I began to use a wheelchair, the congregation shared in my joy as I used a walker for the first time to get to the front of the church.

Sometimes we are called to serve even when going through life’s valleys. Half a year after suddenly losing the ability to walk, I was going through one of the most difficult times of my life. Many things I’d always taken for granted (the ability to stand at the stove and cook my family supper, for example) were now impossible. And yet, it was precisely in this difficult time of disability that God brought to Eric and me one of the greatest gifts of love and service of our lives.

You see, the teenage daughter we had adopted many years prior, when she was 10, had an older brother who lived in a long-term foster home. Through monthly sibling visits, we had built a relationship with this young man.
On a hot summer day when I was feeling especially sad about my losses and wishing there was a way I could serve more, we were unexpectedly informed that our daughter’s brother could no longer live with his foster family. He was now 20 years old, and like our daughter, lives with intellectual disabilities. We were asked to open our home to him as live-in caregivers. We had just one day to give our decision.

Given my disabilities, it seemed we should say no. However, despite the challenges we faced, we possessed the capacity to provide a loving, safe home for this young man. That night I clearly felt the Holy Spirit guiding us to say yes. We felt a call to not just be his caregivers, but to embrace him as a son, as Christ embraces us.

So we said yes. While it hasn’t been an easy two years, our son is thriving and we are now in the process of legally adopting him. Living with physical disabilities has given me unique perspectives and strengths in advocating and caring for him.

I’ve discovered that while some may look at me and see only my disabilities, God doesn’t just see the outward picture. He instills in each of us unique gifts to follow his teaching to serve and love those he brings across our paths.

About the Author

Jenna C. Hoff is a freelance writer and editor in Edmonton, Alta. She is a member of Inglewood Christian Reformed Church.

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Comments

The author may live with visible disabilities, but mine are invisible.  They limit me nonetheless.  For example, I have schizophrenia, which has nothing to do with the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Phenimenon by the way.  That illness and especially its treatment atypical antipsychostics, cause significant weight gain, which in turn causes people to develop Diabetes Type 2, and the medications used to treat that condition have other side effects like increased sensitivity to heat and diarrhea to name only those two.  So in summe heat waves I often have to skip church because our building is not air-conditioned, and I'm at te stage of life where I get hot flashes, so if you put the three together I get heat exhaustion very easily, and then I'm out of commission.

Also, while people seeing her may assume she's dependent on her husband for care, but many people when they think of mental illnesses assume that those who live with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia also have intellectual disabilities, yet the two are no more automatically linked than cancer and blindness, for example.  The main reason that people with schizophrenia may APPEAR to have an intellectual deficiency is that very often they start experiencing symptoms likehallucinations, insomnia, delusional thinking and depression as teenagers.  Those symptoms interfere with their studies because they can't concentrate when they're hearing voices or haven't slept through the night for weeks on end, and so they fall behind.  Also, they may be ostracized by their classmates because of their odd behavior, and they drop out of school altogether.  Many also take their own lives at this point.  So stigma, albeit less of a problem than it used to be, is still a major hurdle for people with mental illnesses.

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