My Child Is Not Your Trophy {Changing a Community’s Attitude Toward Disability}

I have been really fortunate, through blogging and my work as an inclusion expert, to meet some amazing people who care as passionately about faith-based inclusion as I do. But I am picky. Highlighting guest posts here is not typically something I do. In fact, I've only done it one other time. (Read: A Reminder of What is Possible: “No Limits” on the Jewish Disability Community.) But this friend is too wonderful to keep to myself. So it's with joy that I introduce you to Sheri Dacon, author of Lyrics for Life, a space where she "pours out her thoughts on faith, struggle, and abundant life." Read on, I think you will quickly realize why I think she is pretty fantastic.

My Child is Not Your Trophy, Changing a Community's Attitude Toward Disability; Removing the Stumbling Block

My Child Is Not Your Trophy {Changing a Community’s Attitude Toward Disability}

When we left our former church, there was indeed a final straw that cinched it for me.

But there were little things that started piling up, months and even years before. Almost imperceptible nicks and scratches that I can see now, in hindsight, were huge triggers for the anxiety that eventually sent me reeling over the edge.

One of these moments came when I watched my oldest child compete in a Bible drill. My son has a photographic memory, so he did well in the competition. I knew he would. But as the drill went on, I quit focusing on him.

hand up, child ignored; Removing the Stumbling BlockWhat drew my attention away was the girl at the end of the row. She stood there with all the other kids, eager to answer the questions.

But she was never called.

All the other children were called upon at least once, even twice or three times, including a well-mannered boy with autism.

But the little girl at the end was ignored.

I knew this girl. She was feisty. She had a handful of special needs and her behavior was more than a bit challenging. She was the type of kid most adults roll their eyes at in exasperation because she just won't sit still. People didn't like her. I'd heard the talk.

Truth is, she was a lot like my autistic son, who was still very young at the time.

As the event went on, I struggled to hold back tears. I got angry. If there's one thing that gets my gander up, it's injustice. Afterward, I talked to the program director and told her my impression of how unfair the whole thing was.

And of course, me opening my mouth got the talk going. The gossip was all over the building within the hour. I ended up having to call the woman who ran the drill to smooth things over and apologize, because my words and intentions were as misconstrued as if we'd been playing a game of “Telephone."

It was messy.

I was angry with myself.
Angry that I allowed myself to get upset when it wasn't even my child.
Angry that I didn't control my tears and my temper better.
Angry that I couldn’t live up to the goal of perfection I had set for myself.

I always had to go and mess things up.

When I confronted some of the volunteers who helped with the drill, they assured me they were open toward kids with special needs, that it was simply an oversight.

I took them at their word and I still do.

But then, as if to prove a point, they referenced the autistic boy as an example. He had competed and done well. They had even allowed him to use accommodations so that he could participate.

Similarly, a few years later when I tried to start special needs ministry for children, I was reminded of what a great special needs program our congregation had for adults. Leaders pointed to the program as if to say, "See? See all these disabled people? We DO love people with special needs. We DO include them. Don't you see? Look how happy they all are!”

But I couldn't see.

Because at that moment our family was in the whirlpool of rejection. It felt like we were drowning. My boy didn't conform to the "smiling, joyful, cognitively disabled adult" trophy that our congregation was so proud of.

Neither did the little girl at the end of the row who couldn't sit still or keep her hands to herself.

How do we expose wrong thinking and change hearts; Sheri Dacon for Removing the Stumbling Block

But here's the thing:
People with special needs aren't trophies.
They don't exist just so a community can show them off as an example of how "inclusive" they are. They aren't status symbols for a congregation to flaunt its righteousness.

My son is not a trophy. 
He is a boy.
He is a person.
He is a soul made in the very image of God.
He is a human being with distinct, unique, and valuable gifts and talents.

And as his mother, I insist that he be treated as such. NOT as an object or a symbol of someone else's supposed achievement.
But simply as the person he is.

Have you ever seen "trophy-ism" within your communities? It can happen not just with disability, but also with race, socioeconomic status, gender, and a host of other things. It occurs any time a congregation, organization, or community uses certain people to -- for lack of a better term -- make themselves "look good.”

Like a "trophy wife.”

It’s nasty, but it happens.

So how do we change a community's attitude toward disability?

How is it possible to expose wrong thinking and change hearts toward viewing all people as people, and not just as a cross-section of a certain demographic?

It starts with the heart.

It starts with loving people, with being informed, with taking a stand for what is right.

After the aforementioned incident when I ugly cried in front of everyone and spoke my mind, I felt horrible for days. I groveled and apologized and crawled back into my shell. I was disappointed in myself.

But now that I'm older and a little wiser, I'm proud of what I did. I witnessed an injustice, allowed my mask of "perfection" to fall away, and stood up for a child who wasn't even my own. It was the right thing to do.

I encourage you to take a stand as well. If and when you see the injustice of "trophy-ism," will you call it out? Even though you may be shaking in your boots?

Do it because it's the right thing to do. Communities are changed one heart at a time. Let it start with yours.

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