By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service
(Ninth in a series)
ROME — One of the most joyful people I know is one of my wife’s relatives who I will call Anne. Anne is almost always happy and immediately lights up a room when she enters it. On major holidays, my wife and I venture up to Long Island, New York, from Washington, D.C., to visit family. Every time we arrive, I can count on being warmly welcomed and embraced by Anne as soon as we walk through the door. Anne’s joy is truly contagious — her happiness brings happiness to others. To me, she epitomizes the spirit of St. Mother Teresa’s life and teachings: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
What I have not mentioned is that Anne is developmentally disabled. It is apparent that this condition has not kept her from bringing a bit of God’s kingdom to Earth; rather, it has provided her with a unique ability to do so.
Earlier this week, I was dismayed to learn about the extent of abuse perpetrated against people like Anne. According to the National Research Council, the rates of abuse against disabled children range between 22 and 70 percent. Other studies found that “individuals with intellectual disabilities are 4 to 10 more times as likely to be victims of crime than others without disabilities (Sobsey, et al., 1995). One study also found that children with intellectual disabilities were at twice the risk of physical and sexual abuse compared to children without disabilities (Crosse et. al., 1993).” This is truly disturbing.
People can abuse disabled children undetected for a prolonged period because of society’s tendency to attribute any negative behavioral changes in a child to his or her disability, rather than the abuse. It is important to recognize that all children, including those with disabilities, do not experience prolonged and unexpected negative behavioral changes at random — these changes are almost always a reaction to negative event they have experienced.
Another reason for the vulnerability of disabled children is lack of communication. It is very difficult for those with intellectual disabilities to voice their suffering to their caretakers — they often do not have the language to do so. For these reasons, it is very important to put in the effort to create methods for communication that result in meaningful dialogue.
How can we enter into this dialogue in our daily lives? Simple — by listening. In his message for the 50th World Communications Day, Pope Francis describes what communicating and listening entail. What he says relates perfectly to how we should engage those with intellectual disabilities:
“Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. … (It) calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power, and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.
Listening is never easy. … Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the ‘holy ground’ of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”
Finally, let us also remember that it is often those whom we consider to be the least among us, who turn out to be greater than we could ever imagine to be. In my case, I know that Anne will always best me when it comes to bringing joy to others.
When I read this verse from 2 Corinthians (12:9), I think of Anne and wish to share in her strengths:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”
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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He is attending Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University’s interdisciplinary program for a diploma in safeguarding minors. He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim.