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Respecting People With Special Needs

Updated on January 16, 2017
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy writes about family, home life, parenting, money-saving tips, and many other topics, as well as essays and occasional humor pieces.

It takes a village to teach children to love others

Compassion is easy to teach young children; they are naturally non-judgmental and caring.
Compassion is easy to teach young children; they are naturally non-judgmental and caring.

Children can learn compassion at a young age

At the little church I attended during my childhood, girls went through an unofficial rite of passage the year they turned eight. That was when you joined Josie's Sunday School class.

Josie wasn't the teacher. Josie was a student. The rest of us would only spend a year or two in the class before moving on, but Josie never went further than the eight-year-old class. Josie was an adult, but she had Down Syndrome, and her mind was forever locked in childhood,

Back then, there were no Special Education classes, and "mainstreaming" referred to fishing or boating. Sadly, sometimes children who were "different" were sent away. But if their communities were lucky, they were simply integrated into daily life. Our community was one of the lucky ones.

Josie could have been any age – at eight, it was hard for me to determine. I could see that she had wrinkles, and her hair was turning gray and thinning. But she wore patent leather Mary Jane's, the gathered-skirt shirtwaist dresses of the time, and a hat. Those were the days of straw sailor hats festooned with clusters of plastic cherries and yards of grosgrain ribbon, and no little girl was considered properly dressed without one. Like the rest of us, she also wore dainty white, wrist-length gloves, and carried a little plastic purse. Church and Sunday School were dress-up occasions; you wore your Sunday best to worship the Lord.

Our lessons in love came from experience

As little girls, we helped our friend read Bible verses in Sunday School.
As little girls, we helped our friend read Bible verses in Sunday School.

We learned to accept Josie just as she was, and to celebrate her accomplishments

On the surface, we were in class to learn about God and Jesus through the Bible. We did learn about God and Jesus, but our best lessons came from Josie. Each week, we had opportunies to practice patience and acceptance, and to find joy in the smallest of things.

Josie could not read, and she could not speak normal words. But she communicated freely and openly through sounds and gestures, and left no doubt as to whether she was pleased or displeased about things.

Each week, the worn Bible we used in class was passed from one set of small hands to the next, and our young voices labored aloud in turn, reading King James’ verses written in words well beyond our years. Sometimes a class neophyte would assume that we were to skip Josie, and would hand the Bible across her to the next person. It only took one such mistake to learn the drill. Josie would protest indignantly, and one of us would matter-of-factly explain how things worked.

Josie took great pride in reading her Bible verse. She would hold the Bible in her lap, and the little girl nearest to her would read the verse for her, pointing to each word. Josie would beam broadly when her verse was over. Her sense of pride and accomplishment was contagious, and we praised her for doing such a good job.

Josie's love of life was infectious, and she taught us to love unconditionally

Joy was a prominent and overriding emotion for Josie. She was certainly capable of showing anger and irritation, and we learned readily to be sensitive to her feelings. But she helped shape us into sensitive future adults, while reminding us it was okay to continue being children. From her, we saw how easy it was to experience childlike pleasure in the simplest of things.

At eight years of age, the timing for us was perfect. We were not yet the self-absorbed teenagers we would become, but we were old enough to think ourselves superior to anyone younger – they were just little kids. We wanted so much to grow up, and quickly. Thankfully, Josie helped us slow down a bit; her guileless behaviors were gentle reminders to enjoy the moment, and her knack for expressing unselfconscious, pure delight was an example of how to live each day with joy. Because it was so easy to make her happy, we learned to freely seek ways to do so.

If we congratulated her for being a good Bible reader (even if by proxy) she wore a wide smile for the rest of the morning. If we were astute enough to compliment her on a new purse or dress, she laughed and glowed from the attention. Gradually we began to talk to her as though she could answer us back, unaware that we were learning a basic lesson in honoring human dignity. We learned through time and love to discern the difference between doing for her that which she could not do herself, and in working with her to reach the simple goals that she could achieve through help.

When we passed around the little plate to collect the dimes and nickels tucked in the sweaty palms of our gloves, we knew Josie could find her coins in her purse if we handed it to her and helped her open it. If we held the plate in front of her, she remembered to put them in with the rest of the offerings.

Sometimes she would laugh or sing a special song of joy when we said our closing prayer – we quickly learned to take it in stride and let her know we viewed it as her personal way of praying with us. Josie was a true Child of God, and sharing Sunday School with her each week gave us regular lessons in understanding the requirement, and ultimate thrill, that we should love all of God's creatures as He created them.

A church cherishes a special needs child

There is wisdom in treating special needs children as normal.
There is wisdom in treating special needs children as normal.

Our entire congregation cradled Josie in love

The church's open acceptance of Josie wasn't entirely a product of the eight-year-old Sunday School Class. Our minister's love for all people set the tone for how the congregation felt about her. She was an integral part of the church family; as much a member as anyone. Josie's mother, a single parent, would sit with her during the morning worship service. From time to time, Josie would burst out with some sound of joy, or maybe a cry of concern, in the middle of the sermon.

"That's right, Josie!" the minister would say, never missing a beat. Recognizing her name, Josie would grin widely in satisfaction, causing everyone to smile and laugh with her. The sermon would continue, with the congregation somehow more sweetly united.

When we left Josie's Sunday School class, we wondered why she couldn't move along with us. We wanted Josie to graduate to the next grade. But the adults all said it wasn't possible; Josie needed to remain with a younger age group. We would grow older and wiser, but Josie would not.

That made sense to us, but we all missed her; she'd become a valued part of our weekly experience, and her lesson of love crossed gender boundaries as well. There was no Josie in the eight-year-old boys' class. But they'd met her through us, and treated her as we did. She was one of us.

A bit sadly, we moved along to the next class. And a few years later, yet another. Soon we were learning about make-up, and teetering to church in tiny spool heels and saggy nylon stockings. We were beginning to date the gawky boys we'd met in Youth Fellowship, who walked beside us in the church hallways and joined us, through our examples, in giving Josie a friendly "Hello," each week. The warmth we'd felt for her as children had transcended the years of our youth. She had helped the girls become responsible young women, capable of embracing the weak and humble, and she had allowed the boys to learn the graceful and manly law of loving and protecting all creatures.

I don't believe Josie's needs were the real reason that she stayed behind each year. The real reason lay in the transformation that would happen to little girls fortunate enough to spend a year or two of their childhood in Josie's class. God had an important plan for this precious woman who never grew up. Wisdom was a gift she gave to others, not something she developed and hoarded within herself.

Special needs children are angels among us

It is a gift to have a special needs child in your life.
It is a gift to have a special needs child in your life.

Many generations of children were taught to care for those with special needs through the lessons Josie taught us

Years later, after I became a wife and mother, I passed the current crop of eight-year-old girls sitting in class with Josie. I stopped for a minute, lost in childhood memories, and my eyes sought her out.

Josie didn't let me down. There she sat, surrounded by the innocents of the church, who weren't yet old enough to know they were at the throne of an angel. Some little girl next to her helped read Josie's Bible verse, followed by a chorus of childish voices celebrating their most cherished classmate's small success.

And I knew something was very right with the world, because we had Josie as a steward of God's plan. Through the magic of her presence she was teaching yet another generation of young girls to develop the gentleness, patience, love and acceptance they would need as women.

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    What a touching family story, Sharyn - how lucky they were to be surrounded by love, and how fortunate you were to have them in your life. It's amazing what we learn from the innocents in the world. Thank you for reading and commenting, and for sharing your experience.

  • Sharyn's Slant profile image

    Sharon Smith 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

    Awesome story Marcy - extremely well told. I only have three first cousins and they are all mentally challenged. We learned early on how to treat them with respect and not make fun which was an extremely important lesson. My cousins have brought much joy in to our lives in their own way.

    Sharyn

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Kamalesh - I'm so glad you found Josie to be as special as I did. She was a true gift from God. I appreciate your comments.

  • Kamalesh050 profile image

    Kamalesh050 5 years ago from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India

    Excellent hub, very touching and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing with us this wonderful story - there is so much we can learn! Voted Up / Awesome.

    Look forward to reading your other hubs!

    Best Wishes to you, my Friend.

    Kamalesh

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    I think you're right, alocsin - if we just explain things to kids and act normal, they accept things easily. Thanks for your comment.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Thomas - what a kind thing to say! I appreciate you words - thanks for reading the hub!

  • alocsin profile image

    alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

    I think that children really don't have a problem with any disability. They tend to see differences as simply characteristics of another person whether they have blond hair, walk with crutches or have Down's Syndrome. It's the adults who unfortunately pass their own prejudices down to the kids. Voting this Up and Interesting.

  • ThomasBaker profile image

    ThomasBaker 5 years ago from Florida

    You are a gifted, caring person. Your story came from the heart. Thank you for writing it.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Charlotte - what a sweet comment! I wish others could have known Josie, and could have been in the nurturing environment my old church offered her.

  • Charlotte B Plum profile image

    Charlotte B Plum 5 years ago

    This is absolutely beautiful, inspiring and touching. I wish more people could read this. Thank you for sharing this precious story with us!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Sunnie - I agree with you, dignity is one of the most basic rights of all individuals. I've been blessed to work with some special needs children and adults since my time of knowing Josie, and it has always been a wonderful experience.

    I can imagine the blessings you bring to people in your career as a nurse. That is one of the finest callings there is. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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    Sunnie Day 5 years ago

    Marcy this touched me so much! What a special gift Josie was to so many. I worked with many adults in the community with special needs and it was the most rewarding time in my career as a nurse. I loved them so. You said something about dignity and of all things this is what they deserve in society is to live with dignity and most of all to be loved. Thank you for a wonderful hub filled with so much heart!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, MissOlive - I'm so glad you enjoyed Josie's story, and I'm especially glad your son is in a nurturing and supportive environment, both at school and at home. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, cebutouristspot - you should share that story in a hub; many people would benefit from reading it. Thank you for commenting here.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    It sounds like your daughter is as sweet and tender as you are, Ardie! Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad your daughter, at such a young age, is learning the wonderful things special children have to share with us.

  • missolive profile image

    Marisa Hammond Olivares 5 years ago from Texas

    Marcy - what a wonderful story! This is a truly touching example of how special all children are and how we can learn from each other. Simply beautiful - thank you for sharing Josie's story!

    My son is a special needs child and he attends school at the campus I teach at. It warms my heart to no end to hear so many students greet him and give him high fives as they pass in the hallway. Tender moments for this mom. :)

  • cebutouristspot profile image

    cebutouristspot 5 years ago from Cebu

    I once took care of a special child and I must tell you the experience is great. I believe I have learn more from than experience. Thanks for sharing

  • Ardie profile image

    Sondra 5 years ago from Neverland

    Marcy, I had to stop and wipe my eyes a few times while reading this. You tell a beautiful story and I am going to share it with my oldest daughter tomorrow. My daughter will be 11 this week and she volunteers to spend her recess playing/walking with the special needs kids to help them if they needed it. She loves it so much and she just grins ear to ear telling me the sweet little stories about playing. She even recruited two of her friends to help out!! Your story reminds me just how important it is for my kids to spend time with these sweet angels. Thank you for sharing this. I needed something uplifting today :)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Kelley - I'm glad this story reminded you of that precious child. Anyone who has been blessed by knowing a special child or adult knows how fortunate they are. Thanks for your comments.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for your comments, homesteadbound. I agree - there's a special place for angels like Josie. She was such a gift to us.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Jackie - I honestly decided after knowing Josie, and after some other experiences, that it may well be God's plan for some people to provide us with the blessing and gift of teaching us to love others without judging. Thank you for your kind comments.

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    kelleyward 5 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful hub. My husband and I taught a Sunday School class with a child who had down syndrome. This child was welcomed and loved by all. Your story reminded me of her. Thanks!

  • homesteadbound profile image

    Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

    Wow! I don't really know what to say. This is a superb story of love given, received and shared. You have blessed us by sharing this story with us. What a wonderful place she will have in heaven!

  • Jackie Lynnley profile image

    Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

    That was so beautiful it almost makes one think God does send these special ones as cruel as that may sound to others. She was happy and how very many did she teach a valuable lesson to? Only tears of joy could be shed over Josie I would say.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, must65gt - I appreciate your kind comments. I agree with you - we have come a long way.

  • must65gt profile image

    must65gt 5 years ago

    What a great hub with a special message we all can learn from. I see so much progress with helping others learning to work with the "special" kids.But I believe "special" refers to what they can offer us. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Sherri - thank you for your sweet comments. It's sad you had to move away from your supportive church group; maybe you'll find another one that is as loving and understanding. You are right - Heavenly Father knows you, knows your daughter, and knows that she is with loving parents. Bless you!

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    Sherri Dickens 5 years ago

    Thank you so much for this wonderful look into your life! We attended a church like this for a while before my daughter was diagnosed! They were the most wonderful group of people who completely understood and supported us throughout some very difficult days! Unfortunately, we moved and have never found another church home, but we have found some wonderful friends and God knows where we live and worship Him!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Cardelean - I'd be honored if you would link it. I will read yours, too, and link it as well, if that's okay with you? Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • cardelean profile image

    cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience that you had. I recently wrote a hub about a friend of ours who has a special needs son that has taught so much to my children about acceptance for others. I'd love to link this one to it if that is ok.