Advocating for those with disabilities is encouraged in the Bible. Take, for instance, Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (NIV). The ESV uses the word “mute” instead of “those who cannot speak for themselves.” Both are helpful. Those who are mute or nonverbal physically cannot speak for themselves. They can’t advocate for themselves. But those who are disabled in ways that don’t affect their vocal tract may face a different challenge in advocacy: people may not ask for or listen to what they want.
Sometimes, when we see someone with a physical disability (someone who uses a wheelchair, walks stiffly, or uses a cane), we might assume that they also have a mental disability and treat them as such. It may be true, or it may be completely unfounded. People can have both physical and mental disabilities, but one does not indicate the other. It can be tempting to talk down to someone in a wheelchair, to treat them as if they are a child, but we must remember to treat people age-appropriately. This is especially true in the way we speak. We wouldn’t use baby-talk to address a forty-year-old businessman who is able-bodied, so why would we use it with a forty-year-old man who uses a wheelchair in the world? We need to be careful to use respectful tones and language when speaking to people with any disability, physical or mental.
One of my dear friends is nonverbal. She has an app on her iPad that she can use to speak for her, but she prefers not to do so. Instead, she likes to communicate physically by pulling me toward the thing she wants to do. Even though she’s nonverbal, she has found ways to advocate for herself and make clear what she wants from me. I know she typically chooses not to use her speaking program to respond to the question, “What do you want?” but it is still respectful to give her the opportunity to make her request known in whatever way is easiest for her. The same goes for someone who is verbal but perhaps isn’t going to talk over others to be heard. Perhaps their voice is quieter, and people talk over them. In that situation, we can use a tool I like to use in conversation with my peers. I address them by name and ask if there is something they would like to say. That’s an easy way to advocate for anyone. By doing this, we don’t talk over them. We open up the opportunity for them to say what they’d like to say.
As Christians, the Bible is clear that we are to use our voices to lift up the voices of those who often go unheard. If we are verbal, we can use our words to open up a conversation with nonverbal people. God has given us the gift of our voices, but we must bestow that gift on those whose voices need to be heard.