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March 20, 2009

Special Olympics and Obama's Teachable Moment

Late last night, I was reading the news wires when the news of President Obama's comments on The Tonight Show about bowling and Special Olympics caught my eye.

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It's too bad that the president's bowling game isn't better than he claimed, but it's amazingly inappropriate for him to compare himself to Special Olympics bowling. Actually, Special Olympians are pretty good bowlers.

I know that for a fact.

My son, Mathias Dudley Morgan, soon to turn 11, will start his annual SO bowling program any day now. Mathias is a person with Down Syndrome. He bowls, swims laps, runs, ice stakes, square dances, plays softball, basketball, shoots pool. He has never met a ball he didn't like. Ask his teachers and therapy team at Bower Elementary School in Warrenville, Illinois. Ask his two sisters, or his mom.

Mathias and the WDSRA Wildcats (his basketball team) recently completed their season -- it was their best ever. Mathias scored his first points in competition three of the four last games of the season. (Photo: Mathias, far left, and team-mate receive their tournament medals from Coach Bob.)

This morning, Tim Shriver, head of the national Special Olympics program, spoke on Good Morning America and said that President Obama personally had called him from Air Force One to apologize for what the president had said.

Shriver was very good about accepting this apology, but did note the emotional pain that the president had caused. (Which is true.) Then, Shriver took it to a new level. He said the president had provided Americans with "a teachable moment."

But my big question is this:

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What do we Americans and American Christians need to learn from (not about) people with disabilities?

This question has haunted me in one form or another since the moment of Mathias' birth, when I held my newborn son for the first time in labor and delivery, and I clearly heard the voice of an angel telling me, "Your son has Down Syndrome." (That was unforgettable!)

Here are four things I have learned from nearly 11 years of teachable moments:

1. A person with a disability should be given the same dignity, respect, and opportunities as everyone else.

2. Exclusion is harmful, inclusion is always welcome, but inviting persons with a disability to be truly integrated into your life is a game-changing experience and a mysterious blessing beyond measure. (And a lot of hard work, too)

3. When we risk allowing the person with a disability to teach us, it makes our shared humanity more visible and helps us see our own limitations in a new light.

4. God, our Father, has deep purpose in allowing people with disability to live among us.

See you at the bowling alley, President Obama.

Comments

And I hope President Obama truly invites many Special Olympics bowlers (and other athletes) to the White House...it would be great for the nation, great for the guests, great for his family, and great for him.

Tim:

I have worked among people with developmental disabilities at Elim Christian Services for 12 years and can concur with your thoughts above. However, I want to add a couple cents worth to the conversation.

In John 9:1-3, Jesus points out that a man's disability allows God's work to be displayed in his life. This is obviously evident in the lives of those with disabilities. But let's be clear about a couple things.

1. People with disabilities are not outside God's love and mercy. They are truly blessings as you point out. God's work, after all, can be displayed through them because of their disability.
2. However, they are not blessings because of their disability. They bless us only because God works to display His strength through their weakness.

These very essential qualities are important for each Christian to recognize in their own lives. What makes us different is not what we celebrate, it is how God redeems us to each other despite our differences that we celebrate. It is not disability that we celebrate, but how God uses disability to bless us and teach us and display His good work that we can celebrate.

I want to point out elimhopepacks.com to you. This is a relatively new Elim initiative to:
• equip people with disabilities to perform fulfilling missions work
• bless people in need with essential school supplies (without which they can't attend school)
• fulfill the church missions by partnering with them in these missions

In fact, over the coming months, we are looking to run Elim HOPE Packs supply drives in at least 30 churches (though we are certainly open to partnering with many more). Through this, we KNOW Christians will see God's work evident in the lives of those with disabilities, and perhaps even be a little bit embarrassed at how well people with disabilities understand what life in Christ is all about.

And in the vein of embarrassing other people, I would like to challenge President Obama to a bowl-off with some of Elim's Special Olympians the next time he's in town.

Tim,

What a kind rebuke to our president's incredibly insensitive comment! Christ indeed offers a solid basis for dignity and hope for those whom the world considers to be of little worth but who are precious in his sight.

Stan

So Obama gets a pass on this one too. The fact is, in Barak Obama's world there would be far fewer Special Olympians... he would eliminate them before they were born. So why is he Mr. Nice? Why does everyone cover for him? This IS the man without a teleprompter.

Tim,

Thanks for this piece. I don't have anything to say other than thank you - it's perfect.

-Kate