Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What to say when a stranger blesses your child with disabilities

It happened again the other weekend, when we went into New York City. Our family was standing at a crowded intersection on 5th Avenue, about to cross the street, when a woman stared at Max and said "Bless you." He didn't notice, and I didn't respond—in my mind, Max does not need blessings or prayers any more than any person walking down the street does. Then she said, louder, "Bless you!" And then, yet louder, "BLESS YOU!" And I said, "Yes! I am so blessed to have these three amazing children!" and we walked on.

This has happened more times than I can remember with Max—strangers on the street, in stores, at airports or wherever blessing him or offering to pray for him. Obviously, people mean well, although this woman's insistence made me uncomfortable. Perhaps they are announcing their intentions, instead of just beaming prayers Max's way, because they want him, me or both of us to know they are lifting him up.

The phenomenon is common in the disability community. I've frequently read adults with disabilities discussing it in social media. Parents of children with disabilities say it happens all the time, and some shared stories when I posted about this on the blog Facebook page. "I've been cornered by a Jehovah Witness wanting to pray over my son as I was waiting for my order at KFC," said Brian H. "She was offended when I said, 'No, God made him and he doesn't make mistakes.'"

It's a touchy topic—blessings are involved, after all. Blessings! What could be bad? I know that some consider it graceless and just plain mind-boggling that parents like me do not appreciate them. But here's where I'm coming from: What is at the root of why strangers bless Max? I can't know for sure but when blessings and prayers are solely directed at him while my other two children stand there (as always happens), or when they are accompanied by pitiful looks (typical), I am going to make the natural assumption that strangers are praying on my boy because they feel he is unfortunate for having a disability.

The blessing pusher on 5th Avenue didn't bless my other two children. I can't think of a time when I've been out with one or both of them and someone has said "bless you" to either or offered to pray for them (or me, and God knows that as the mom of a teen girl, I could use good vibes). I've thought about how I would feel if I was out and about and someone randomly blessed me. Given that I don't think anything is wrong with me, I'd be all "And why are you blessing me?" Which is what people with disabilities object to—they see nothing "wrong" with themselves. Why should they be called out this way?

This woman's insistence on blessing Max made me a bit defensive in my response, although it was heartfelt—all my children are blessings. At other times, I've just smiled and said, "Thank you but he doesn't need blessings, he is awesome as is!" My Facebook friend Teresa B. always says this when people bless her daughter with disabilities: "God already blessed her!" Says Cat V., "I have to say that I have had numerous people say they want to pray for me so my deafness is cured. I always respond with, 'Please don't, I  LIKE how I am.'"

To be sure, not all parents mind blessings from strangers. Some feel a simple "thank you" is the best response. "People want to bless my kid or pray for him, go for it," says Cat V. "Hugging, just no.... Makes them happy. My kid needs all the good vibes he can get."

Some parents see unsolicited blessings as relative—they consider them far better than other things strangers do. "We have had people say some really crappy things to us about my daughter, who is mostly nonverbal and makes noises when we are out," says Sara C. "So when someone comes up to us and says something nice, even if it's weird, I usually don't care much. I don't understand why random strangers think it's OK to come up to parents of special needs kids and say stuff.... Special needs parents don't routinely go up to parents of neurotypical kids and make remarks."

All this is said in the spirit of a parent trying to raise a child who feels good about who he is, and in the spirit of helping people better understand that Max and any child, teen and adult with disabilities deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity any person has. My Max doesn't think anything is "wrong" with him. Same goes for his little bro, but if he keeps seeing people offering Max blessings, he's going to wonder.

Consider what I'd say to Max when he someday realizes what's happening and asks what's up. Am I supposed to make him understand that strangers pray on him because of his disabilities? How different and apart would this realization make him feel? Yes, it could lead to a great discussion about disability and perception, if not many. But we are not there yet—him or our culture. And as his mom, I do not want him to feel like he is a person in need of pity.

People intent on doing my son good might instead compliment him on something he's wearing. Or his hair, he has really good hair. Or comment on the weather. Or say any of the typical things you might say to a stranger. Or just smile and keep your blessing on the inside. Make him feel like he is any person on the street; not calling him out for his disabilities is far more of a blessing.

"Why can't people understand that this behavior is incredibly insulting?!!?" says Marcy N., an adult with disabilities. "I usually try asking them why they want to pray for or bless me, in an attempt to make them think."

The best ambassador of all for Max is, ultimately, Max. The next time this happens, and it will, I am going to encourage him to say "I'm fine, thank you!"


  1. I agree with Marci N., and am curious to know what the person's response is when she asks them why they are praying for her(or, if they even have a response). We all have strengths and challenges, although many people's challenges are less visible than others. How would you feel if someone unsolicited said, "I'm praying that your unorganized nature and cooking will improve." My response? "I'm doing just fine, thank you."

  2. Do what I do say your religion private. If you want to offend them, whichi is appropriate at times, tell them by praying they lack the intelligence I do believe in the =power of positive thinking, not pray. Also it shows a real lack of understanding ab out faith in general. You need to be just as FORCEFUL to push back on them as they are with you.

  3. There are people who think that folks with disabilities-- particularly if the disabilities include cognitive ones-- have a special connection to God, e.g., are angelic beings sent to Earth for a special purpose. So these folks may be saying "Bless you, you cherub, you!", perhaps hoping for a bit of angel dust to waft their way.
    Equally wrongheaded, of course, as well as intrusive and somewhat creepy-- but at least not as negative.

  4. I agree with “creepy” - there is just something creepy and offensive about strangers commenting on anyone’s kid, no matter what.

  5. Check out Life and Living with Cerebral Palsy blog day 3045 (almost always a link on this site's weekend linkup). Nisha has no problem standing up for herself!

  6. Also, Nisha is clear about the damage that is done by this patronizing practice.


Thanks for sharing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...