Newsletter – July, 2003

**Companion Resources Newsletter**

edited by Paul D. Leichty

Volume 5, No. 7 July/August 2003

How special is special?

In a paper entitled “Community Building In Logan Square,” Mary O’Connell tells the story of how neighborhood leaders in the Logan Square section of Chicago were asked to identify persons with disabilities in their neighborhoods in order to help integrate them more fully into the life of their neighborhoods. However, the project could not get off the ground.

Almost everyone knew that there were persons with developmental disabilities in their neighborhood. Some knew where there was a group home. Others had seen these persons in a shop or on the job. But no one could give a name or enough information to go seek out that person. Persons with disabilities were nameless persons on the fringes of community life.

At the same time, there was no secret involved in finding such persons. Everyone knew they lived in special group homes administered by social service agencies whose sole work it was to care for such persons. So the community developers finally gave up asking in the neighborhood and went to the social service agencies.

Eventually, the neighborhood association sponsored the project to encourage others in the community to form friendships with persons with disabilities to see if they could be included more in the community. Some of these relationships included going to church together.

One such person who was a part of this experiment was Susan. With the help of a friend, Susan joined a faith-sharing group at a local church. She participated for several sessions. The other persons in the group made room for her and accepted her occasional eccentric behavior. It seemed like the goal of encouraging a person with disabilities to become part of the community was succeeding.

However, one day at a sharing group meeting, Susan became sick. After dealing with that unpleasant reality, the group started talking. One of the group leaders finally said what some others were thinking. Susan didn’t really belong in the group. Among the reasons for specifically asking Susan not to come back was this rhetorical question: “Doesn’t the diocese offer a special religious education program for disabled people?”

Indeed, the word “special” has become a code word for segregated services for persons with disabilities. Although there are hopeful signs in certain communities, for the most part, we expect persons with disabilities and chronic mental illnesses to function as clients who are served by professionals in settings that we call “special.”

These persons start school in special early intervention programs and special pre-schools. When they become school age, they enter a system call “special education” and get classified for certain “special ed” classrooms. Some get involved in Special Olympics. When they get out of school, they enter into a system of special agencies who take care of their “cases.” They go to special workshops, live in special homes, and continue to have “special” recreational activities.

The rest of us have come to think of this as normal and good. That way, we don’t have to make any adjustments and modifications in our mainstream educational settings, homes, workplaces, or bowling leagues. Persons with disabilities are segregated, shuttled off into a kind of exile where they are cared for by professionals and don’t have to bother the rest of us.

It is granted that this situation is better than the institutions of 50 years ago with their stark barren buildings and high wrought iron fences. We even take pride that “these folks” are now in our communities.

But even though they live among us, they are still often isolated and lonely. The wrought iron has been exchanged for plenty of shrubbery, expansive lawns, and strict supervision.

And even though they work in some of our workplaces and places where we do business, they are mostly invisible. They tend to be the ones who clean up after us, emptying the trash or washing our dishes in the back room.

And even though they go to our churches, they tend to congregate in bigger churches that can then develop a “special” Sunday school program so that they don’t need to bother the rest of us.

Pretty soon, it appears that the separation and segregation, the sense of exile and isolation, are nearly as great as if they were behind physical walls.

Yet, everywhere you look, there are signs of hope as professionals become friends and build bridges to others in the larger community. When we take the time to enter into this “special” world and build relationships, there are some truly special things that happen out in the community. Whether it’s shopping together, seeing a movie, inviting a co-worker to dinner, or including someone in the Sunday School class social, there are countless ways to break down the walls of segregation and begin building true community that includes everyone.

It is in community-building attitudes and activities that truly special things begin to happen. For it is only then that we can discover that “persons with disabilities” also have abilities! Each person has gifts and, indeed, is a gift from God. We can receive those gifts only by living in community relationships which enable those gifts to be exercised and shared.

So let’s go beyond the specialness of segregation. Let’s build a “special community” where all persons, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, their abilities or disabilities, can participate and find a place of belonging.

I would enjoy hearing about the special moments in your lives! Many blessings as you continue to build community!

Paul D. Leichty

Goshen, Indiana

Phone/Fax: 1-877-214-9838 (toll free)

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