The United Nations declared today, December 3rd, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Around the world on this day, the abilities of all people are to be celebrated, even (and especially) those of vulnerable children.

Followers of Christ believe that all human beings are created in the image of God (Imago Dei), and therefore have the capacity and the right to thrive in relationship with one another. Yet while God’s image is within all people, in many parts of the world children with disabilities continue to be relegated to the uttermost fringes of society. Particularly in impoverished communities, resources that provide adequate physical, social, and psychological support are rare. For these reasons, it is not uncommon for children with disabilities to be sent to orphanages. These children are then doubly stigmatized in their ability to see themselves as humans with full rights, made in God’s image and for fullness of life.

A core belief in the Faith to Action Initiative’s Guiding Principles is that Christians are called to respond. Children in Families (CIF), a faith-based organization in Cambodia, has responded by recognizing the compounded needs of orphaned and vulnerable children with disabilities. Faith to Action recently featured a story on CIF’s community approach to reintegration and, in celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is excited to highlight CIF’s ABLE (Accepted, Belonging, Loved, and Empowered) Program. A core aspect of CIF’s ministry, the ABLE Program reintegrates orphaned or abandoned children with disabilities into families and equips them with appropriate resources. As ABLE’s technical advisor, Lisa Yunker, describes: “We see children with disabilities as having been made in the image of their Creator, precious to Him, and having purpose along with every human being. We want them to be able to see themselves that way too.”

The ABLE Program incorporates several best practices into their process of reintegrating children with disabilities from institutional care back into families. First, ABLE is not just child centered, but family centered. Family members help identify gaps in services, then describe their daily activities through “routine-based” interviews that reveal a child’s strengths and preferences to ensure that interventions are effective. Second, ABLE practices home-based care to address families’ needs in a way that is empowering and relevant to their environment. Third, ABLE uses Cambodian resources. By collaborating with local partners to provide therapy, medical equipment, or access to special education, ABLE builds upon the collective strengths of the whole community rather than reinventing the wheel. Finally, ABLE is committed to building the capacity of Cambodian staff. Now working alongside Lisa are the ABLE Program’s three Cambodian staff members: a physiotherapist and two Community Rehabilitation Team members.

These best practices are clearly evident in the story of Visal,* a seven-year-old Cambodian boy for whom the ABLE Program has made a life-transforming impact. Visal has cerebral palsy. Unable to cope with the idea of caring for a baby with disabilities, both of Visal’s parents left him when he was young, and the boy was left with his grandmother. Visal spent most days lying on his back in bed; like many children with disabilities he did not and was not expected to participate in any meaningful activities. Visal’s grandmother lacked any understanding of why the boy was not developing like other children. For both Visal and his caretaker, life felt hopeless.

This all changed when CIF became involved. Through CIF’s Kinship Care program, Visal’s grandmother and aunt (who was previously hesitant to help) received support and training so they felt empowered to care for the boy. ABLE staff then conducted a developmental evaluation and family interview to determine needs, and concluded that a wheelchair would significantly improve Visal’s quality of life by allowing him to sit upright and more actively participate in his community.

ABLE then collaborated with local partners to provide resources. Another nonprofit organization, Veteran’s International, equipped Visal with a wheelchair. ABLE also hopes to partner with the local school to help it become more inclusive, since it is not yet able to accommodate children with disabilities.

ABLE’s Cambodian staff visit Visal’s family regularly to monitor his physical and nutritional needs. Visal receives a special nutrient-dense porridge each week, since, like many children with cerebral palsy, he has difficulty chewing and swallowing. ABLE’s physiotherapist works with Visal on developmental activities that encourage mobility, with a particular focus on those his family can do together. Visal has already mastered rolling over by himself and is now working on sitting and grasping items.

Through these successes, the previous aura of hopeless in Visal’s home has disappeared. Visal’s smile illuminates his pride and eagerness to participate more fully in life. Lisa adds, “In addition to the practical support we provide, we make it a priority to take the time with this family, and with every family we serve, to let them know that they and their child are valuable and cared for. We want them to see the love of Jesus for them through us.”

For Visal, his ability to contribute to his family and community are now being celebrated. His cerebral palsy no longer gives rise to family separation, but instead binds the family together and makes them more capable of caring well for one another. Truly, the image of God in Visal’s life is being acknowledged and restored.

* The name of the child has been changed