“We May Not Think As Quickly, But We Feel As Deeply” (Ros' Blog)

“We May Not Think As Quickly, But We Feel As Deeply” (Ros' Blog)


Two recent encounters give a painfully poignant insight into the reality of lockdown for people with significant learning disabilities. In the first, a young woman is visited by her mother for the first time in 15 weeks since the beginning of lockdown. The meeting takes place at a distance of 2 metres in the garden of the care home where the young woman lives. This woman has sufficient cognitive ability to understand that a virus is the cause of the separation, although she doesn’t fully understand why. She knows that a vaccine will get rid of the virus but can’t understand why one isn’t available today. 

The conversation goes like this: 

Young woman: What Mum going to get when there’s a vaccine? (And she taps her upper left arm with her right hand.) 

Mother: A vaccination? 

Young woman: No. What Mum going to get when there’s a vaccine?  (Taps her arm again.) 

Mother:  A jab? 

Young woman: No. What Mum going to get when there’s a vaccine?  (Taps her arm again.) 

Mother: I don’t know. You tell me. What’s Mum going to get when there’s a vaccine? 

Young woman: (Tapping her arm again.) Close to me. 

In the second scenario a father is visiting his profoundly disabled, non-verbal daughter in the garden of her care home, again for the first time in 15 weeks since the beginning of lockdown. His daughter is wheeled into the garden of the care home. As she sees her father, her face lights up in a beautiful smile, and she leans forward in her wheelchair as far as she can with her arms outstretched. He tries to explain that he isn’t allowed to give her a cuddle and has to stay two metres from her, but this is beyond her comprehension. As he fails to respond to her outstretched arms a look of confusion comes over her face and she soon begins to sign in Makaton that she wants to go to bed. 

It would be impossible, I think, to overestimate how hard the separation from family has been for people with profound learning disabilities. When I was about 13, a MENCAP poster campaign had a profound impact on me and changed forever the way I viewed disabled people. The poster depicted a small boy with Down’s Syndrome who was crying, and a slightly older girl, also with Down’s Syndrome, with her arm around him, comforting him. And the caption was, “We may not think as quickly but we feel as deeply.”   

Imagine feeling so deeply the separation from family, but not understanding why your parents have suddenly stopped visiting you, and not having the vocabulary to put your feelings into words. You can’t offload to those close to you because you don’t have the ability to explain to them what you are going through. Good and genuinely caring care staff will read the non-verbal communication, but not all care staff can do this, and even if they can, it does not alleviate the confusion as to why family visits have been suspended for many months. What a frightening and disorientating world it must be to inhabit. 

What can churches do to help people facing such a difficult experience? Practical solutions are limited, but above all churches can pray. Pray for the confusion and fear to be overcome by the peace of God. Pray that in the absence of family, the sense of God’s very near presence will be a daily reality. God can and does answer such prayers for people with learning disabilities. But also, send cards with cheerful pictures and simple messages such as, “we haven’t forgotten you”, “we are thinking of you”, “we love you”. Chat to people over Zoom or Skype. Even very profoundly disabled people can be helped to engage with this. Wave to them over the video link and play their favourite songs. Send them presents based on their interests. Contact their families to find out more about their interests and do something relevant to that – send gifts or share pictures and videos of things that they love to see, via Zoom. Eventually when the rules permit, visit in the garden (at present this is restricted to family).   

And pray that this horrible pandemic will soon be over so that families can be reunited again, which is always the will of God: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing.i”