Just WONDER-ful! Tips for Connecting with People with Disabilities

The movie blindsided me. Unprepared. I used my sweater to mop up my tears and running nose! Joe was more prepared with his handkerchief but we were both blubbering. I think I gasped once, too! Yet, the movie WONDER was just WONDER-ful!

For those of us on the unexpected journey of special needs, countless life lessons ooze from this tender movie. Lessons were woven wonderfully throughput the script and meant for “the public”: people we run into, people within the church, people in schools, our neighbors, friends, and even our family. Classroom teacher Mr. Browne’s first day of school September precept was, “When given the choice between being right or being kind—choose kind.” That great quote welcomed his students and more deeply expressed the theme of how the main character Auggie would learn his own life lessons along with the “public” that surrounded him.

Although “special needs” takes on many different forms: cranial facial abnormalities, lack of verbal skills, lack of gross and fine motor skills, intellectual deficiencies, and the list goes on, we realize that some differences are more obvious than others. I remembered when our son Joey was a little boy. (As a 36 year old adult his gross and fine motor skills, verbal skills, and intellect are all lacking…..so fast rewind to maybe age four: he had few skills with which to “engage” with others.) Dad Joe was sitting with him at the airport propping him up against the window watching planes land. A woman with a little boy about the same age as Joey, but who was walking, talking, and toddling around, said hello to Joey. Without waiting for Joey to respond or for Joe to respond for Joey (who could barely walk and did not talk at all yet) the other mom moved her son along saying, “We don’t need to be with unfriendly people.” Stunned, we said nothing! 


For “the public” here are some WONDER-fully simple ways to begin to engage with those who have obvious (and not so obvious) disabilities or differences:

  • If you’re not sure of their intellectual abilities, simply say “hello” and see if they respond. If they don’t, rely upon their caregiver to help interpret. If they respond, you’ll soon observe some of their abilities (verbal, intellectual, etc.). We have a dear friend whose son has cerebral palsy, is in a wheel chair, and can be very hard to understand, but mom and dad know everything he is saying. We just need to be patient to get the interpretation. I would ask questions and wait for them to repeat his words. AND, after a while, I started to understand some of his words. (He even told me a few jokes, making me laugh and realize how smart he is, not to mention handsome!)
  • If the person is in a wheelchair, stoop down to their level so that your eyes will meet theirs. Even if their eyes are looking all over the place, they will be able to see, hear, and understand you better. As you inquire of the caregiver, they’ll invite you to understand more!
  • Speak at a normal rate (and not loud) until you observe the caregiver instructing you differently. For us, we like to tell people that Joey hears fine, but it takes about 10 seconds for him to process things and respond. 
  • Don’t make fun of others—whether they are near you or away from you. They and/or their family will see/hear it. (It’s hurtful!)
  • Reach out to shake their hand, or even pat them on the shoulder. Letting them know you want to engage with them is so helpful.
  • Always show kindness: kind words, thoughtful and helpful actions. You’ll never go wrong with that!

As Mr. Browne encouraged his students, let’s do the same in our churches and other public places as we engage the special needs community in some of these ways. It would be just WONDER-ful!