We are all Special

By: Fr. Fintan Murtagh SSC

Fr. Fintan Murtagh is a missionary in Luzon for 30 years. His work with the handicapped reveals a true and beautiful Church of the poor which must surely disturb us all and challenge us.

Many people don’t like the sound of the word handicapped. It just does not sound right. It may be offensive to some, especially those concerned. “Special People” or “Mobility Disadvantaged” or any number of other names are used. Personally, I think it betrays an uneasiness that we all experience in the presence of disadvantaged. Allow me to use the term “handicapped” when referring to those special people who suffer some disability. Even the use of the word special is a little misleading because I believe that everyone is special, even myself!

In the Philippines it is the custom, that the children approach the priest and make mano (ask for blessing) by touching the priest’ hand to their foreheads. When a beautiful little girl called Melody asked for the blessing I noticed that she was a polio victim.
Melody was two or three years old. Polio had left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was lucky to have loving, caring parents who sent her to elementary school. In fact, her father made a side-car attached to his bicycle to take her to school. We were able to have a tricycle made which Melody could propel herself. And one of her neighbors made parallel bars from bamboo poles so that she could do therapeutic exercises everyday.
Meeting Melody was a new beginning for me. It made me focus on a need that I had not seen before.
There were man handicapped people in the parish. We now have 120 in our rehabilitation programme. Some suffer from cerebral palsy, polio, Pott’s disease, meningitis, muscular dystrophy, deafness, dumbness or blindness.

Community Based
Our programme of rehabilitation is based on David Werner’s book “Disabled Village Children.” Barney McGlade, an Irish layman sponsored by GOAL (Ireland) came with some of his team from Malate parish in Manila. With there help the Community Based Rehabilitation Programme (CBR) was set up here in Candelaria, Luzon, Philippines.
The programme is community based. Families understand that God has given them a special person to help and encourage in their development. They trained to give therapy to victims of cerebral palsy and polio. They teach the deaf and their families and friends the sign language. We have attempted projects like making picture frames from sugar cane stalks and baskets from bamboo or rattan. We have taught sewing and needlework. All the encouragement to share their skills with each other. This has contributed to a growing sense of community where the handicapped, members of their families and many others support each other. Some have very special gifts that enrich the community.

Arlene, Edgar, Ate Fe, & Rolly
Arlene is a nurse who has specialized in therapy for the disabled. She visits the homes teaching mothers how to give treatment to their disabled children and supervises the progress of each one.
Edgar is a teacher whose specialty is education for slow learners. He has endless patience putting his student through various teaching exercises and lessons.
Ate Fe, is a mother of 14 children and is an expert physical therapy, herbal medicine and acupressure.
Rolly is a high school graduate who is very gifted sign language teacher and expert in handicrafts. He is studying to be diesel mechanic and gives generously of his free time.

Elvis, Marlon, Bernard, Letty, & Roger
Besides these dedicated workers some of the handicapped are active in helping each other. Elvis who cannot walk because his legs were severely deformed by polio and is also deaf and dumb, is a champion basket maker. He shares his skills with others. He is an able teacher of the sign language.
Marlon makes beautiful ornate picture from sugar cane stalks and delights in sharing his talents with the others.
Bernard, who is blind is a gifted guitar player. He plays in church every Saturday and Sundays and he teaches others.
Letty was sent to a special school for two years where she learned dressmaking and needlework. Now she is a teacher the skills she has learned to others.
Rogers, who is deaf and dump, teaches sign language, basket making and gardening, and many other things.

What a Mass!
When we had a special liturgy for a handicapped all the main participants were disabled. A team of six interpreted the readings, homily and hymns in sign language. The collection was taken up by those in wheelchairs. A blind guitarist was our principal musician. Most of the choir gave full voice to our praise from their wheelchairs.
I noticed many moist eyes in the congregation. In fact, I myself had to clear my throat a few times.