Teachable Moments

A Label Does Not Define Potential

Dyslexia, Cystic Fibrosis, Autism, Down’s Syndrome.  Each of these diagnostic labels is helpful in that we use them to communicate what is going on for a child with special needs in an effective manner.  But if we’re not careful, labels which are meant to be helpful for children can turn into a barrier which works against them.

We know with surety that a label does not represent a mistake, but an intentional challenge God has designed affecting both the child and their family.  It’s important – vital really, that we remember we are created by God specifically and purposefully (Psalm 139). Yes, labels help us navigate and communicate certain expectations, but in no way, however, do these labels define a child’s identity and importantly, they do not limit the child’s potential.

Potential is the capacity to become more than who we are today; it is about our development, our future prospects, and our yet-to-be-tapped-into success.  Potential is not predetermined nor inevitable in its scope or outcome. Potential is all about what can be, not what can’t be.

We need to have a clear understanding of potential when we know or work with children and families who navigate a disability. Remember, when you meet one child with a disability, you have only met one child with that disability.  While that precious child may possess characteristics which fulfill the diagnosis of autism,for example, that child will exhibit those characteristics in their own unique way and it in no way should assume a lack of potential.  We never take away possibility and we never stop believing in the “what could be” in one another.

In being a fan of “potential,” it doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to the limits that also exist.  Potential does not assume limitless possibility. When we acknowledge potential, we are talking about the boundaries of limits and what they are and what they aren’t.  In truth, all of us have limits we can’t exceed in our life. For example, I am unable to run a 6 minute mile. I am unable to deadlift 200 pounds (okay, can’t do 100 pounds either).  I am unable to enjoy doing math computations. Nor do I enjoy ironing, lima beans, and I really hate slimy animals – please don’t ask me to go fishing and hold the fish! Do any of these limitations define me?  Do any of these limitations make me less able to have a happy and successful future? No – I’m perfectly fine not doing any of the things I just listed. Yet, I know if I wanted to, I could push against the limits I just named and get closer to reaching my potential in each of these areas (maybe I will move from hating slimy animals to at least tolerating them).  Reality is, I don’t really want to or need to for I embrace the idea that I do not have to be good at everything; embracing my limits while simultaneously challenging my potential are two sides of the same coin. I choose where to work to maximize my potential and I choose where to embrace my limits.

All this talk about limits and potential and embracing both can be expressed in compassionate, kind and loving ways to the children and families we know who so valiantly live with special needs.  Here are some suggestions of how to do this:

  • Let’s not pretend we don’t “see” the disability.  A family who has a child with a disability knows they have the disability.  Neither extreme of focusing only on the disability nor avoiding acknowledging the disability is helpful.  An appropriate recognition that makes necessary accommodations in a tactful manner is what is usually best.
  • Ask questions.  If we aren’t sure what could be helpful or what is needed, taking the initiative to ask what is needed or wanted shows kindness.  Taking the responsibility of always having to ask for help off the shoulders of the family can be a true blessing.
  • Be a friend.  Children with disabilities often express a feeling of loneliness as do their families.  Being included and finding ways to enjoy other kids is a normal emotional desire for all children; families also want to get together with other families to have a good time.  A disability doesn’t take away normative needs.
  • Don’t judge.  Families have a lot of difficult decisions to make regarding the care of their children.  A million things need to be managed and unless we are in their shoes exactly, we really don’t know what it is like.  
  • See God’s blueprint.  Because we are all God’s creation, His offspring (Acts 17:29), we have inherent value and part of the responsibility of being a believer is to assist everyone in their God-given potential.  To help one another survive and thrive is part of obeying God’s commandment as Christians to live well with our fellow humans (Luke 10:30-37).
  • Laugh, enjoy!  All humans love to laugh and have fun.  We all need humor and a smile. Find the joy, the laugh and the smile and the challenges become easier to bear.  We are to “bear with one another” and laughing together is an easy way to do this.

Dear Reader, knowing that labels do not define people and knowing that we can embrace both the limits and the potential of life is a God-given opportunity.  May we not miss it! I hope this week you will find opportunities to encourage the potential you see in others, especially any family or child who bravely navigates any disability or special need.  May we be people who see what can be, not what can’t, and may we all look beyond the label.

As always, fondly yours, Elizabeth

“There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.” Henry Ford


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