Despite first-hand experience with cerebral palsy, Latin America Mission missionary Mariana Ruybalid lives alone, drives a car and is able to walk short distances on level ground. She aspires to be a positive role model for people with physical limitations, as well as a voice for those who have no voice.
It had not been easy for me, with poor balance, to reach Lisa’s home. I had to cross a drainage ditch, go up six stairs, through the narrow living room and kitchen, over another ditch and then up a slight incline. Two more rickety stairs led into the two-room shack.
I now understood why the Costa Rican woman seldom left her bed. Lisa often suffered great pain due to arthritis, so the short distance would be tortuous. It would take two strong men to carry her.
Looking at Lisa’s home, I also now realized the difficult circumstances in which she lived.
The shack’s walls were made of wood and cardboard, and a cold wind blew between the gaps, which were covered with bright material. Five relatives shared the tight living space.
Because Lisa originally came from another Central American country – even poorer than Costa Rica – she was unable to receive the medical care that she needed. And the other family members, not able to get work permits, earned less than minimum wage.
Lisa welcomed my visit. I had come to announce that the groups for women with physical limitations, which started the year before, were beginning again. I had come with time to listen, and Lisa had much to share. We prayed together.
An unreached minority
At least 10% of the people in developing countries have functional limitations, said a 1984 World Health Organization report. Of these, women and girls receive proportionately less food, less education and less opportunity. Women with physical limitations are the poorest of the poor.
People with physical limitations in the U.S. have access to education, rehabilitation services, jobs and, where work is not feasible, Social Security benefits. But in Central America, the person with physical limitations must be supported by his or her family.
This presents an intolerable hardship for some families. So it’s not unusual to see physically limited people begging or selling lottery tickets.
Quite a few families abandon their children having limitations. A parent will take the malnourished or sick child to a hospital, give a false address and then never come back.
The crowded institutions for these children are often quite humane. However, they provide little training for staff workers, who consequently do not provide the children with stimulation and individual attention.
Costa Rica has made education and health a priority for its citizens. But is has only one medical rehabilitation center, where there is such a demand for services that it can take a year to get an appointment.
Persons with physical limitations are severely segregated. In a society with severe economic and social problems, much remains to be done. And the voices of these disadvantaged people are just beginning to be heard.
During my first few years in Costa Rica, I worked with a variety of rehabilitation organizations to gain a picture of the conditions and needs of people with physical limitations.
Currently I run two support groups for women with physical limitations at the National Council for Rehabilitation and Special Education. I also provide technical advice at Hogar Luz, a home for abandoned children with cerebral palsy and/or mental retardation. And I work with a Costa Rican agency that is trying to unite and fortify the various groups that work in behalf of people with physical limitations.
I am here as a missionary for several reasons. First, I believe that all people, whether or not they have an obvious limitation, are created in the image and likeness of God and they are loved by him. Second, I believe that people need role models who have obvious limitations. Third, Christians must be a voice for those who have no voice.
How to help
People in the U.S. often ask me what they can do for those with physical limitations. While there are no set rules, we can learn from Jesus’ encounter with the blind man, Bartimaeus, as found in the book of Mark.
(Actually, Christ’s example applies to helping anyone, with or without an obvious limitation. We all have limitations, which is why I use that word.)
Jesus found himself in a large crowd en route to Jerusalem, yet he took time to stop and speak personally with the blind man. Likewise, we must start by getting to know people and treating them as individuals.
Next, Jesus had the person brought to him. Often people with physical limitations do not attend church because they have no way of getting there.
Then Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Sometimes we assume that we know what people need without asking them. We need to ask.
Friends with vision problems have told me that people often grab their arms and drag them across the street without even asking if they want to go across or what is the best way to help them.
Sometimes when it seems like I’m struggling with some tasks, I can use help. At other times, I have my method down and don’t need help. The only way to tell the difference is to ask me.
Finally, Jesus listened.
In our busy world, no one has time to listen. In the groups for women with physical limitations, I have learned that listening is my most important task. From listening, I’ve learned their struggles, dreams and joys. By listening, we affirm people – that they are worthwhile and that their words are worth listening to.
The church’s role
The Bartimaeus account as described in the book of Luke ends by saying, “Immediately, he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When the people saw it, they also praised God.”
We need to encourage people to know Jesus and to follow him. The one with severe limitations can praise God, if not in word, then with his or her attitude. It may take years of discipleship and spiritual support for the person with a functional limitation to reach this point.
Many must go through a mourning process, leading to their acceptance of their limitation. Family members tend to overprotect or reject the person with obvious limitations, so they also may need to go through a mourning process.
The church can provide the spiritual support for people, whatever their loss. Just as it can be a loving community for one who has lost a spouse or who is suffering from cancer or going through a divorce, it can help a person overcome their anger or bitterness due to a functional limitation.
When a person with an obvious limitation takes an active role in a worshiping community, he or she is praising God, who works wonders in our lives. Others will see it and praise God.
Reprinted by permission from Latin America Evangelist. July-September 1988.