Helen Featherstone, in her classic work A Difference in the Family, explains that families affected by disability face all the same challenges that typical families face but with differences of degree. All families are responsible for providing for their children’s physical and mental health, emotional and spiritual well-being, education, safety, growth and enrichment, financial security, material needs, and social relationships—to name a few aspects of care. For parents of children with disabilities, the differences of degree are often significant in many, if not all, of these areas.
The importance of advocacy for children with disabilities
Ensuring their children’s access to these things and appropriate adaptations in certain arenas often requires intensive advocacy on the part of parents of children with disabilities. Advocacy can be defined as “any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others.” The need for unrelenting advocacy can be both daunting and discouraging for families affected by disability. In many cases, it continues not just through childhood but over the course of a person’s lifetime.
One of my most memorable (but not most stellar) moments of advocacy on behalf of my son Tim—who has Down syndrome—came during his last year of high school. A group was meeting to discuss how to secure employment for Tim when he graduated. In the past, the vast majority of our meetings had been not only civil but collaborative and productive. At one point in this meeting, however, Tim’s job coach jumped out of her chair and pounded her fist on the table with the words, “It’s all about safety!” My response was as sarcastic as it was quick: “I thought it was all about getting a job while doing it as safely as possible! If it’s all about safety, why don’t we just get a cardboard box, a roll of duct tape, and a straw for air, and seal him up inside it?” As any good counselor will tell you: a sarcastic comeback is rooted in anger.
Navigating advocacy wisely can be a “sticky wicket” for Christian parents. We serve a God of righteousness and justice who says the very foundation of his throne is built on these attributes (Ps. 89:14). At the same time, we encounter a world that too often is indifferent to righteousness or justice on behalf of people who are touched by disability. To make it even more complex, Christian parents—as fallen but redeemed persons made in the image of the Living God—do not always accurately reflect God’s character in our advocacy either. How can our redemption and our representation—by Christ our Advocate—transform the ways in which we engage others in advocating for change?
Becoming like Jesus in our advocacy
Perhaps the most amazing gift that God gives to Christians is Jesus Christ’s role as our Advocate. By living a perfect life, dying a sacrificial death, rising in victorious power, and standing before the Father’s throne on our behalf (Heb. 9:24), Jesus is truly the Advocate above all advocates. As Norman Clayton’s old hymn “My Hope Is in the Lord” says,
And now for me He stands
Before the Father’s throne
He shows His wounded hands
And names me as His own.
There is no greater privilege than being blessed by the advocacy of Christ through saving faith. Jesus’ advocacy has several dimensions that we too can reflect through the transforming power of his Spirit in our lives as he conforms us, more and more, to his image.
First, Jesus’s advocacy is fueled by love. The same love that compelled Christ to redeem sinners leads him to name us as his own before the Father. True advocacy is rooted in love. That’s not hard for parents to grasp, as our love for our children motivates us as well. What is harder to grasp is that true advocacy engages all parties in loving ways. It loves the stubborn teacher. It loves the resistant administrator. It loves the condescending extracurricular activity leader. Once grasped, this principle is even harder to put into action. May Christ’s love for us fuel us with overflowing love for our children and for those with whom we must work on their behalf.
Second, Jesus’s advocacy is sacrificial. In order to successfully advocate on our behalf, Jesus had to pay with his very life. Advocacy always costs the advocate something. And the need for advocacy will never completely go away in this lifetime because we live in a world that is wracked by the effects of the fall. That doesn’t mean progress will not happen. It means perfection cannot happen. Expect advocacy to be hard. Parents of children with disabilities have an Advocate who fully understands the cost.
Third, Jesus’s advocacy is unrelenting. Jesus is an Advocate. It is who he is. It is in his divine DNA. When love is hard, when sacrifice is costly, parents can remember that Jesus’ advocacy will sustain us into eternity. So, rather than resisting the role of advocacy on behalf of children with disabilities—or worse, becoming bitter about the obstacles in their pathway—parents can embrace advocacy as part of God’s calling on their lives. In the words of the author of Hebrews, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1–2). To follow in the footsteps of Christ our unrelenting Advocate is not just a difficulty to endure but a privilege to embrace.
May a renewed understanding of the blessings of Christ’s advocacy on behalf of the Christian parents of children with disabilities bring much-needed encouragement. As we stand up for these precious children and seek to meet their needs, may we display a picture of what a loving, sacrificial, and unrelenting Savior we have.