“Joni: An Unforgettable Story” and Being
Sensitive to Special Needs
Here is a post about Joni Eareckson Tada’s life and being sensitive to special needs, with our recommendation to include her autobiography in your homeschool reading plan for next year — what a powerful book!
We hope you’ll also be blessed by advice for teaching your children to be sensitive to individuals with physical disabilities and other special needs.
God has an amazing sense of timing, doesn’t He? He always brings the pieces of life together for us in just the right time for us to get the most learning and blessing out of the puzzle.
About a year ago, I compiled the book list for a Great Christian Writers class that I would be teaching to homeschooled high schoolers in our area in 2011-12. On that list I included a book that had a huge impact on me when I was a teen: Joni: An Unforgettable Story by Joni Eareckson Tada.
Joni broke her neck in 1967 at the age of 17, and the resulting quadriplegia that “should have” ruined her life instead opened the doors for international ministry that has led countless people to Christ and provided wheelchairs and care for disabled people of all ages worldwide. Joni’s personal ministry and that of the organization she founded, Joni and Friends, are introduced at the end of the book I chose for our class. I slated the book for the late-winter/early-spring slump when the kids begin to tire of school. I knew this book would inspire them out of their slump! Little did I know how much MORE God had in mind with the timing.
One week before our syllabus called for the students to read Joni’s autobiography, our homeschool community was deeply grieved when the 23 year old son of one of our homeschool friends went home to be with the Lord after a battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma bone cancer. Our day-school (offering high school classes for homeschoolers in community 2 days per week) had been deeply involved with this family, and we were all impacted with grief and confusion and pain. Many of our teens (and lots of adults, too, whether they said it aloud or not) were confused and hurt; why hadn’t the Lord healed Joseph when we had all prayed and believed in our God’s healing power? Joseph loved Him passionately, and testified to His goodness; wouldn’t it have been a tremendous miracle for God to raise him up when the doctors had no more that they could do?
Right at this vulnerable moment, the syllabus for our literature class called for the students to read Joni’s story. In chapter 13 of her book, Joni deals with this question in her own life, and her thoughts and experiences as she waits to be made physically whole in God’s perfect timing (here or in heaven, whichever He deems best) ministered to our hurting hearts 26 years after her book was written.
But God wasn’t finished weaving my days together yet!
The following week I traveled with Marilyn and Kym to the Teach Them Diligently Convention in Spartanburg, SC. We were excited to exhibit in the vendor hall and share a workshop about using Drama in your homeschool. We had plans to meet IRL (“in real life”) friends we have made here on our blog and other homeschooling blogs in the past year. Our plans were good, but God had even more to offer us!
I was able to slip out of the vendor booth long enough to attend the workshop “Open the Eyes of Their Hearts” about developing a heart f0r individuals with special needs and physical disabilities. Joyce from Joni and Friends spoke with warmth and intelligence about the many ways the church and homeschoolers can minister to those with special needs and their families. Marilyn and I spent a wonderful hour at her booth later talking about this often-overlooked mission field.
I returned to my homeschool literature class with an extra assignment for the students. I sent them to the Joni and Friends website to do a little research on the 13 ministry divisions they have, and I asked the students to write about the ministry that captured their hearts the most. It was exciting to read how some of them were drawn to Wheels for the World, the ministry that takes wheelchairs to underdeveloped countries. Others were excited to learn about Through the Roof , equipping the church for disability ministry and outreach.
But what excites me most is this: the majority of the kids were drawn to Family Retreats, the ministry that hosts week-long retreats for disabled folks and their families, and trains volunteers on short-term missions to be a “buddy” to a camper with a disability for the week.
A whole new arena for missions trips has opened up in front of us, and I pray that several of our homeschool teens will explore it. Here’s a link to the Joni and Friends site explaining how these “buddy” short-term missions work for volunteers 17 and older (there are also volunteer opportunities for younger teens). The cost is a fraction of what is necessary to go overseas on a missions trip, and while overseas missions is necessary to fulfilling the Great Commission, so is ministry here in the U.S. Joni and Friends Family Retreats are an exciting possibility to explore in choosing a mission on which your teen can serve.
For the study guide I wrote to accompany Joni: An Unforgettable Story, visit the EBookstore. Priced at just $4.99 it contains background information, comprehension questions by chapter, suggestions for supplemental activities, and an answer key.
Parenting a child with special needs is no easy job, and I have the utmost respect for these parents.
I also have the responsibility to equip my own kids to understand how to appropriately interact with peers with special needs.
Here are some suggestions for helping young people become confident in reaching out to build relationships with peers who may look, sound, communicate, process information or move differently than they do.
* PRAY. One of the things we need to pray for our own kids is that they would grow in love for others, and grow in understanding those who may be confusing or frustrating to them in their flesh. By beginning with prayer (in this endeavor, and in all things) we are going to the Source of all love, and asking Him to enlarge our children’s hearts to extend love to all men.
* TALK AHEAD OF TIME. Sometimes we fail to talk to our kids about physical disabilities, speech impairments, autism, mental retardation, or the myriad other challenges that are a part of everyday life for many individuals but may not occur in our own immediate world. Intentionally introduce the subject of ministering in love to people with special needs in your homeschool. Use video, books, and conversation to honestly and fearlessly explore the topic.
Allow your kids to begin with using whatever words they need to in expressing their feelings when they think about interacting with someone with special needs. If they say things like “weird,” or “scary” or “embarrassing” in this private conversational context, they are not being mean — they have to be able to honestly articulate how they feel in their flesh in order to recognize that they need something more, something from God, in order to deal with relationships that are out of their comfort zone. When you make it safe for them to admit that they are intimidated by certain situations, you can then lovingly show them that Christ is our strength in weakness, and that we need to ask Him to equip us to reach out in love, to change our view of people who are different than us, and to teach us to minister to them in His love.
If I wait until a situation is unexpectedly thrust upon my child, I have done him (and the person with special needs) a great disservice. My child needs to be equipped through conversation and research before the situation is in front of him.
* BE DIRECT. Every individual with special needs is just that: an INDIVIDUAL with special needs. There is no cookie-cutter that can be applied to a person because of a diagnosis. The vast majority of people with special needs appreciate direct questions like, “Is there a way that I can help with this, or do you prefer that I stay out of your way?” Asking the parent of a child with special needs very basic questions like, “What kinds of help may I offer your child?” will do more equipping in a few moments than weeks of fumbling and fearing offense.
If the child or parent is taken aback by your question, don’t be offended. That is simply your answer; this is a person for whom help from strangers or casual acquaintances is not desired. Typically this type of reaction is NOT what you will get, but sometimes an individual or family is in the process of emotional adjustment to the special needs, and may not be comfortable to talk about it with you. If you have asked the question in love, you can rest assured that you have not really offended, only offered help and been told that it is not needed at this time.
* DON’T CRINGE. If your children are young, they are likely to ask something of a person with special needs (especially visible physical disabilities) that may make you want to cringe. Of a person with atrophied limbs, “Why do you legs look like that?” is not an insult, it’s a genuine request for information. The person who is dealing with those atrophied limbs every moment of every day is likely to simply answer the question. Don’t make the situation complicated by jumping in to answer for them unless they seem unwilling to answer for themselves. Following up with a gentle word of appreciation for the information validates everyone involved.
* GET SPECIFIC WHEN YOU NEED TO. An ongoing relationship (a co-op, a Sunday school class, a drama production) with someone with special needs will result in specific challenges where a solution will not be obvious. Pray, take a deep breath, and deal with them specifically when they arise. The longer you put off asking the awkward question or suggesting the delicate suggestion the harder it will be for everyone.
A hygiene issue arose in a play I directed in which a teenage student on the autism spectrum was unable to process my instructions to the whole cast about being diligent in using deodorant when we were working up a sweat close to one another onstage. (Honestly, our church sanctuary where we held rehearsals was beginning to smell like a locker room!) I had already spoken to the parents to make sure that the student was able to use deodorant, and I knew that the parents had sent a stick in to rehearsal. But group admonitions like, “Wow, guys, we are really work hard here and it’s starting to smell like it! May I tactfully suggest we all check our deodorant?” were lost. The response I got was a big smile: “I made sure I put it on when I got out of the shower!”
What to do? How to breathe? The other students were struggling mightily with the situation. I prayed, I took my student leaders in the cast aside privately and explained the new plan to them, and then I turned the challenge into a new cast-bonding activity. In a cast meeting, I explained that as we approached opening night the sweat was getting out of control, and we would have to re-apply deodorant whenever I called for it. Regardless of when you last put it on, it would be an act of cast solidarity to add a little more when asked to. My student leaders piped in with encouragement to everyone – “I make sure I shower and put on deodorant before rehearsal, and I STILL am getting smelly by the end of the first hour. I think re-applying during rehearsal is a good idea.”
Guess what? It worked beautifully! “RE-APPLY!!” became a rallying cry for the cast. I would call it out, or one of the student leaders who noticed things “going south” on stage would start it, and before you know it every member of the cast was calling it out in response, marching merrily to their duffle bags to pull out a stick of deodorant. It was the craziest thing; what could have ostracized a student became a rallying point for everyone in the cast.
* ADDRESS YOUR OWN FEARS. Sometimes we struggle to equip our kids to deal appropriately with special needs because we ourselves are uneasy or face fears of our own related to the particular disability or challenge. Be honest with God first about your fears. Then find someone with whom you can share honestly about your struggle. Seek education for yourself via the internet or community resources. Joni and Friends has fantastic resources for understanding individuals with physical disabilities. Autism Help offers good information about spectrum disorders.
Have you downloaded our literature study guide for Joni Eareckson Tada’s autobiography, Joni: An Unforgettable Story? Click here to view excerpts from this study guide with comprehension questions, supplemental resources and answer key.
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“Joni: An Unforgettable Story” and Being Sensitive to Special Needs