Handicapped people have left their mark upon the world both for good and for ill. Demosthenes had a speech impediment. Beethoven wrote his greatest music while deaf. Every schoolboy knows that John Milton was a blind poet. Theodore Roosevelt began life as a sickly child. Franklin Roosevelt achieved national and world leadership in spite of poliomyelitis. Kaiser Wilhelm had a withered arm and Hitler a warped personality. It has been said that it is not what happens to us that counts but how we deal with it.

Just who is an exceptional child that grows up to be an exceptional adult? He is the child who is markedly different from other children, one who has a physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral divergence from what is considered normal. He may be blind. He may wear a hearing aid. He may use a prosthetic device or other orthopedic support. His behavior may be seriously anti-social or withdrawn. His intelligence may be so inadequate that he cannot learn to take care of himself. Or he may be so greatly gifted, with talents so far beyond the ordinary, that he is misunderstood and lonely.

This exceptional child could belong to anyone. Any home could have a mentally deficient child. Illness or accident might permanently damage a well-favored youth. The best efforts at control might not prevent behavior distortions resulting in delinquency or mental illness.

Yet some church people take the position that these tragedies indicate God’s displeasure and are sent by him as punishment. The mother of a severely retarded child was once asked by her neighbor, “What terrible thing have you done that God should punish you so?” The feelings of guilt such an idea engenders are cruelly difficult to eradicate.

But another view is that God has made available to mankind ways of overcoming evil. Not enough is known about the abnormalities of human growth and development. Certain viruses may be dangerous to fetal growth. High fevers may damage the central nervous system. Blood incompatibilities leave their mark. Sometimes mistakes are made, as in the use of thalidomide. Man is constantly searching for truth and for ways to put his knowledge to work. And the Church through its compassion has a stake in the study of man’s deviant behavior or condition, whether this study comes from the anatomy class, the nutritional laboratory, or the psychological clinic. Such study ought to reflect human compassion that expresses itself in good stewardship and in patient deeds of love. Yet this compassion is not always evident. Some years ago, for example, an invitation to the spiritual leaders of a small city to visit the city’s program for educating the handicapped brought out only three from among more than forty possible church representatives.

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The mother of a mentally deficient child said, “I have not been to church since this little girl was born more than seven years ago.” Another mother speaks of finding little help in her church contacts. She tells of advisers too busy to discuss her son and his problem of limited intelligence and sensory defects. She feels others are impatient with her inevitable questions, “Why did this happen to me? What is the meaning of this child’s life? How can I cope with it all?” Many people are embarrassed by questions like these, and some even think there are no answers.

But another mother said, “God must love us very much to entrust this precious child to our care.” She wrote a book about her endless search for medical help and for proper schooling for her little girl born with cerebral palsy. Raising this child is looked upon as a sacred trust by this family, and the parents derive great comfort from the support of their spiritual advisers. For these people God is actually a “very present help in time of trouble.”

“Is the life of the person with special needs important enough for the Church to match its profession of compassion with patient deeds of love?” The question is posed in a study book for junior high school pupils. Its answer must be clear and unhesitating. Who can estimate the worth of Anne Sullivan’s devotion to Helen Keller?

Although the word “handicapped” does not appear in the Bible, handicapped persons are mentioned in stories of the blind, the maimed, the deaf and dumb, the paralytics, and those possessed of devils or evil spirits. Treatment accorded them varied greatly from the kindness shown by David to Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son crippled in an accident, to the callous indifference to the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. It was Christ’s compassion that led to the deepening appreciation of the sacredness of life out of which came the effort to protect and help handicapped persons.

For more than sixty years the attitude of education toward handicapped children has been moving from denial and exclusion to acceptance and provision. Private schools for the blind and the deaf have been operating for many years. Fresh-air schools and hospital classes for delicate and crippled children are also of long standing. Increasing numbers of public school systems have been developing programs for the mentally retarded, crippled, blind, and deaf, and some of these programs go back more than fifty years.

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Schools For All The Children

An illustration of what can be done is the Special Education Program provided for handicapped children in the schools of Bellingham, a city of about 35,000 in a rural county of Washington adjacent to the Canadian border. The constitution of the State of Washington declares that “it is the paramount duty of the state” to provide education for all the children of all the citizens. This means all children: blind, deaf, dull, crippled, unruly, disturbed, uncared for, unloved. Special programs of various kinds, suited to particular local situations, are increasing throughout the state.

Under this law for the past thirty years there has been some local provision for children of limited capacity. The present program in Bellingham, now eleven years old, is serving in one way or another more than 250 children who attend schools in Bellingham and Whatcom County and have barriers to successful learning. Emotionally, mentally, and physically handicapped children are included in the program, which is based on the principle that all children are entitled to an education suited to their needs.

Most of our country’s adolescents graduate from high school. Some go on to college, some into the armed forces, and some to work. Other young people cannot meet requirements for high school graduation; yet they too will go to work. There are also children who cannot qualify for high school entrance but who will grow up to take a place in society for which we must prepare them. Still other children lack the ability to attend any public school classes at all. For each group of limited capacity there must be a curriculum suited to their needs—one that recognizes both their limitations and their assets.

City and county schools may provide, as Bellingham has done, programs that facilitate the learning of children with particular problems. The deaf child is more like other children than different from them. His exceptionality is his lack of hearing. His many likenesses to other children ought to be emphasized rather than his one area of difference. Therefore Bellingham’s programs for handicapped children are scattered throughout the schools in the district. The handicapped children are encouraged to mix with other children as much as possible. In fact, by the end of the elementary program, most physically and emotionally handicapped children have learned to overcome or live with their problems so successfully that they can return to the regular classroom.

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Another aspect of the special education program is that the class is built around the teacher. Each teacher’s assets are considered when children are assigned to his room. Some children need a man teacher, some a woman. Some require a permissive classroom atmosphere; others thrive in a more structured one. Thus children with several different disabilities may be found in the same classroom. As a result, handicapped children learn with great personal benefit to be considerate of others. The mentally retarded boy feels important and needed as he protects the physically unsteady little girl. The emotionally disturbed girl finds satisfaction and develops self-confidence as she reads to the blind boy. A child’s firm determination to overcome some obstacle has a heartening effect on all who watch.

Certain handicaps receive particular attention. There is, for example, an auditory resource room for children with severe hearing impairment. Itinerant specialists in speech training serve many other children. Books printed in large, bold type and other sight-saving materials are provided for children with limited vision. Crippled children are released from class for physical therapy provided by agencies outside the school system.

Young people whose academic achievement is limited but who have the capacity for social competence continue their education in the secondary schools. Here the general curriculum is adapted to the needs of the individual. He may leave the core room of his special program to compete with other students in such non-academic areas as shop, music, art, or physical education, where his talent may even surpass that of his classmates. Some graduates of this part of the program find limited success in unskilled employment.

One unit is for mentally deficient students who are limited in both academic and social competence. This is a specialized situation—a home as well as a school, a greenhouse, a warehouse, lawns, gardens, and uncleared land—and it is used for teaching simple skills and occupational pursuits. Because these students are unlikely ever to be self-supporting, they will continue to need lifetime care, whether at home or in a residential facility. Some graduates of this part of the local program find satisfaction in a community-sponsored sheltered workshop.

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The State of Washington makes provision for serving its exceptional children throughout their lives. As soon as a disability is recognized, professional consultation is available to parents. Special services are added as needed during the years of compulsory education. Various agencies provide help during adult years.

A Heritage Of Compassion

Care for the handicapped in our country is rooted in our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Although special programs for handicapped children have been slow in appearing in public education, the fact that there are such programs means that the citizens support them. And the citizens’ reasons for supporting them, while varied and personal, all go back to the teachings of Christ. Solicitude for the troubled child derives ultimately from the influence of the Christian Church and from man’s response to Christ’s compassion for the unfortunate.

There is other evidence of this relation between religion and education for the handicapped. Some churches have parochial schools for their handicapped children. Some Christian chaplains are working in institutions for the mentally retarded. Sunday school classes for handicapped children are being re-established. Some parents of retarded adolescents look to the local ministerial association to provide leadership and space for a church-related fellowship of teen-age retardates. Among other church-sponsored projects are recreation programs for handicapped persons and Boy Scout troops for handicapped boys.

Another encouraging development is that some denominations now require seminary students to spend some time in clinical practice. Each seminarian spends a specified time on the staff of a medical or mental hospital; or a school for the blind, deaf, mentally retarded, or delinquent; or a prison, or city mission. Such men will know how to minister to parents to whom God has entrusted handicapped children.

Is the life of the person with special needs important enough for the Christian Church to match its profession of compassion with good stewardship backed by deeds of love? Does it care enough to do something for the handicapped? Does it care at all?

I read in a book

That a man called


Went about doing good.

It is very disconcerting

That I am so easily

Satisfied with

Just going about.

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