DUBLIN – There’s nothing scary about Meabh Bradley.
In her pink jeans and white lace shirt, the 15-year-old looks intelligently around the hall of the World Meeting of Families, her blue eyes peering from behind thick blond locks hinting at just the right amount of boredom appropriate for a girl her age.
Yet when she passes by, people lower their gaze and cross the street to avoid her. When she was born, no balloons or flowers or friends were waiting for her arrival back home. In whispered voices, her parents were told that it would have been much better if they had aborted her.
Meabh is severely disabled. Her small frame relies on a bulky black and hot pink wheelchair to get around. She can’t feed herself and she can’t talk. Medicine allows her to live and technology to communicate, by pointing to words.
In everything, and forever, she depends on others: her loving parents and two doting siblings who caress her fondly and instinctively know her thoughts and jokes and needs, showing that the language of tenderness often needs no words at all.
Among the wide range of families participating at the summit taking place in Dublin, Ireland, the “Bradley Bunch” represent the quiet and often willfully unseen reality of families caring for people with special needs and the solitude that they often bear.
They’re hoping the Church will lead the way to “bring families like ours from the outside, to the center, which is where they should be in the first place,” said Marian Bradley, Meabh’s mother and a lecturer in Religious Studies and Religious Education at St Mary’s University College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“Our families have so much to teach about how real families work,” she told Crux.
The Bradleys shared their experience during a panel called “Families and Parish; Supporting Families with Special Needs.” In it, Marian detailed a story very familiar for anyone who’s brought people with disabilities into the world.
It goes like this: The joyous expectation of new life, then the concerned faces of doctors and nurses, the hushed voices, the newborn being quickly taken away, and then, suddenly, the fear, the uncertainty, the anguish.
“We could only watch, powerless, lost in our own fear,” Maria recalled.
Doctors offered no hope, simply telling the parents that their lives were changed forever. But the hospital was just the first part. What followed when they returned home, Marian said, was “pain, loss and challenge,” as well as a considerably smaller circle of friends.
Despite this, Marian learned that “there is nothing logical in the love of a parent; it’s instinctive, powerful, energetic, dynamic and without fear.”
“It’s a love that knows no limit,” she added.
In many ways, Meabh is your regular teenager. She has tantrums, she can be bossy and has a killer sense of humor.
In the same way, the Bradleys are a “normal family” including their fair share of spats. The father, a quiet and tender man by the name of Vincent, is a librarian who has left his job to care full time for his three children. He also represents parents in a charity for young people with disabilities called Autonomie.
Meabh’s sister and brother, Finola, 22, and Ronan, 18, project the confidence of maturity that one would expect to find in someone twice their age. One difference, Finola said, is that “they listen better, communicate better, and speak out for people who are different.”
When asked about their family, the siblings shrug and say “it’s normal,” marveling at how, from the outside, their life can seem rife with hardship.
Marian is the powerhouse of the operation, with kind eyes and arms always ready for a hug. After giving birth to Meabh, she said, she “was so lonely.” But the Bradleys rolled up their sleeves, drawing inspiration from the Bible and Pope Francis.
“Whenever I was living in this world of disability with my own family, I felt like we were lost and invisible,” Marian said. “All of a sudden, Pope Francis comes along and he started to speak our language. He talks about tenderness and he talks about love, he talks about how everybody is so important. He talks about the revolution of being a person of faith.”
Marian was struck by seeing pictures of Francis hugging the sick and disabled, bringing children with special needs on his pope-mobile and spreading a message of dignity and caring.
“All of a sudden, we weren’t invisible anymore,” she said.
The Gospel offered its own revelations of how to live and flourish for people with special needs. Marian said that she was inspired by the “paradox of Jesus on the cross” as a symbol of coexisting strength and weakness.
“When Jesus was at his weakest and most vulnerable on the cross, in terms of our Christian faith, was one of his most powerful moments,” she said. “Our people in our society who seem to be weak – you can say they are marginalized – actually that is the real living of our faith.”
While Meabh and her family, like many others, have found their silver lining, society can often seem cold and unwelcoming toward people with disabilities, with some countries priding themselves about limiting births of people with special needs thanks to pre-natal screening tests.
Ireland has recently voted in favor of abortion, a decision that Marian said to be “devastating for families like us.”
“I don’t think people in Ireland know what they voted for,” she added. “I think they were voting against a Church where there was abuse and such things, I think they were angry.”
It’s not uncommon, Marian said, for parents of children with special needs to be told that they “could have saved many years” had they had an abortion. The impression is that they see Meabh, and others like her, as a problem to be fixed. Instead, she said, “we see an absolutely lovely young person whom we absolutely adore.”
Marian invited people to ponder what a world with no one with special needs might be like.
Her response is that people with special needs – or persons with “determination,” as she likes to call them – show others something in themselves that they might not want to see.
“A person with determination actually teaches us to be vulnerable, and to be in need of care and support. There is a great dignity in that. It teaches all of us about our own vulnerability and our own weakness,” she said.
“I think the world wants us to have a mask, where we cope, and we are strong and it’s a wee bit scary.”
She explained that they see “an upside-down version of the world,” where weakness is not just strength but a gift.
Marian is active in her parish and diocese and has worked in programs on how to make the Church more welcoming. For her it’s the “small, practical stuff that matters.”
She said that a friend of hers who has a disabled child was shocked when no one in the Church walked up to help her keep the door open in order to get the wheelchair in. Already struggling with fear that her child might be a punishment from God, she chose never to attend Mass again.
“When you see somebody coming with a disabled person, instead of ignoring them and looking awkward – which a lot of people do – you can actually come over and say: ‘How can we help? What do you need?’ and then listen,” she said.
Adding initiatives at the parish level that are geared toward creating connections, she said, providing a space for people living with a disability and their family members is a step in the right direction. But in the end, as the Bradleys show, it’s all about what individuals are willing to do.
“A lot of people absolve themselves from disability. They are awkward and uncomfortable, and they step back,” Marian said.
“But,” she said, “people of faith are meant to step forward.”