I knew it was unreasonable, but my childhood fear of people with developmental disabilities haunted me into adulthood.
Dad liked to visit his customers. He was a life insurance salesman until retirement and the phone was never personal enough. When I was a kid, I would tag along on his sales calls. One visit was life altering.
I didn’t know many of the people he visited. That day’s customer was no exception. We arrived at his house, and I hopped out of the car and walked with Dad to the front door.Suddenly, my head jerked toward a commotion coming from around the corner. I saw a grown man, probably in his late twenties, come running toward me.
His pace quickened as what sounded like yelps turned into barks and then into howlings. He barreled across the yard with his arms flailing in great circular motions. I was just seven years old and I panicked. I ran back to the car, swung the door open, dove into the passenger seat, and locked the door behind me. I was safe, but peeking just over my right shoulder, I could see him at the window. I was afraid.
Later, Dad explained that the young man meant no harm – he was only excited to see me and wanted to play. Dad told me that he was developmentally disabled: the man lived with mental and physical impairments. I shook my head and told Dad that I understood, but the fear I felt didn’t leave. I had been traumatized, and, from that day, I feared the developmentally disabled.
As a teen, Mom and Dad shared with me more about my birth story. They had shared all the normal stuff – the location, weight and size, who visited me while Mom and I were in the hospital. What I had not been told was that while Mom carried me during her pregnancy, there were complications – complications that threatened my well-being as a child and an adult. The complications were such that Mom’s doctors suggested to my parents that they consider abortion. The doctors believed that there was a good chance that I would be born severely developmentally disabled.
I was shocked. Mom told me that they never considered the abortion and shared how they determined to trust God with whatever happened. It was hard to process at first. I had not been born developmentally disabled, but if I had been, Mom and Dad would have raised me and cared for me like Dad’s customer cared for his son. I felt uneasy about my fear of the developmentally disabled.
After college, I came to Baptist Children’s Homes (BCH) in Thomasville and joined the newly formed Information Technology department. I loved it. About the same time, BCH expanded its Developmental Disabilities Ministry (DDM) to serve developmentally disabled adults through group residential facilities that in time expanded to nine homes across North Carolina.
As the “computer guy,” it was my job to visit each new group home and install and set up the computers. Because of my fears, it was a stressful experience. I knew the developmentally disabled adults in the group homes would not be “out to get me,” but because of my childhood experience, I was afraid.
One day, I nervously arrived at Stegall Home – BCH’s DDM group home in Marshville. I went straight to work and was surprised when I looked up and there was a resident standing in the doorway, the only door in and out of the room. My stomach tightened. The child inside me took charge and I felt that familiar fear. I continued to work.
The resident, John Willett, attempted to make conversation. “How was your trip?” “Are you doing okay?” “Need anything?” It was your usual polite banter. And I replied with polite responses not looking up. Eventually, John asked if I had eaten lunch. “No, not yet,” I replied. John disappeared – I was about to have another life altering experience.
A few minutes later, John stood at the door again. He was carrying a paper towel folded over. He walked toward me and laid it in front of me.I unwrapped his offering – four peanut butter crackers that he had prepared in the kitchen. John was concerned about me.
Wow! The fear suddenly subsided. It was amazing. The feelings that I carried since childhood were replaced with gratitude. John did not intend to harm me; instead, through his simple act of kindness, he had freed my heart. Through his kindness, I could celebrate, not fear, John and others like John – a population that has such a great ability to love and should not be feared.
Today, I relish my visits to DDM homes. I’m met at the door of each home by the residents. There are questions and hugs. I attend events where I can cheer for my DDM friends. They are quick to show me the artwork and crafts they create and the medals they win during local and regional Special Olympics. They always ask about my wife and son.
Fears can rob us of blessings. In my case, my fears disabled me. The Bible reminds us: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10
Learn more about Developmental Disabilities Ministry at www.bchfamily.org/help/ddm