“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” - Matthew 25:40
I will never forget the words from the doctor, “I am sorry but your daughter has Cerebral Palsy.” In that moment there was a sense of fear and even anger. Trust me when I tell you that nothing in life will prepare you to hear that your child is disabled. However, our anxiety was eventually replaced with faith and peace.
Our journey began on Dec. 2, 1989. Because of the initial onset of a chronic illness with my wife, Debbi, our daughter, Kara Lorell Wheeler, was born 14 weeks early and weighed less than 2 pounds. After suffering from grand mal seizures and being delayed in her development, she finally began walking at the age of 4.
Even though we were constantly reminded by numerous health professionals to “not expect too much” from Kara (whose name means “gracious gift”), we refused to give in. Although her development was slow and tedious, we were blessed with supportive family members, friends, and some committed educators.
In the end, through much prayer and hard work, Kara eventually graduated from high school with honors! As you can imagine, we all cried when she strutted across the stage to receive her diploma.
This is where Liberty University comes in. As any parent of a disabled child understands, not all schools are created equal. Unfortunately, we also learned that not all teachers care about their students’ welfare.
There are minimal federal guidelines set for universities in relation to students with disabilities. As parents of a child with a disability, “minimal” is NOT enough! We wanted to find the best place for Kara to fly and eventually reach her lofty dreams.
As the Prophet Isaiah says . . .
"But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint."
As a Liberty professor and, most importantly, Kara’s dad, I quickly learned that Liberty’s motto of “Training Champions for Christ” includes champions from the large population of disabled students who attend classes here every semester. Acceptance and Christian love is manifested through the student body and I am privileged to be able to challenge all incoming freshmen in regard to this important subject every semester in my Christian Life and Evangelism classes.
After pointing out that the disabled in the United States are among the most unchurched and ignored part of our society, I challenge my students to reach out and become a part of the solution. I encourage them to seek out disabled students and initiate honest dialogue to build understanding. When fear and stereotypes are eradicated, the byproduct is usually authentic Christian community regardless of physical challenges!
To promote further understanding in the classroom, we use some practical interactive demonstrations to help the students identify with the disabled community. For example, we have several of the students fill their mouths with marshmallows, then try to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” out loud for the class. In another demonstration, we have students wear bulky gloves and pass out M&M’s to willing classmates. While these demonstrations can be humorous, the message is obvious: if the tongue or a person’s extremities are impeded by physical limitations, one’s ability to communicate through speech or to use one’s hands or legs is also impacted.
In either case, the disabilities are not matters to be ignored, nor do they impact a person’s heart or their identity in Christ. In turn, I like to remind the students what David Z. Glover told Baptist Press: “I think those with disabilities have a special purpose in life . . . these children are not mistakes. There’s no such thing as a disabled soul.” (Glover is the Founder of Zachariah’s Way, which helps churches undertake Christian ministries for the mentally and physically disabled. The organization is named for his grandson, Zachariah Emerson, who suffered from cerebral palsy and was blind; he died in 2003 at age 4.)
As the father of a college student with disabilities and as a professor at the university, I am proud to report this kind of healthy mentality permeates the DNA of Liberty University. If you want your child to be accepted and challenged to impact the world for Christ, this is the place.
As for Kara, her dream is to share her story and to impact a new generation of preschool children. She is set to graduate in 2014.