Several months ago I attended a webinar with Mike Walker. He was promoting a training created for faith communities titled Our Doors Are Open. The training aims to expand our inclusive imagination.  How can we make our faith communities more accessible and a place of belonging for all people, including those with disabilities?  Mike summed up one of the main points of the training: “Just ask.  Just listen.”  

This reminded me of a man I met over a decade ago in Germany when I visited a workshop that packaged car parts. I was part of a team tasked with learning about the German approach to providing real employment for people with disabilities so that we might do better in Canada.  

My family is German-Canadian, so I speak ein bisschen Deutsche (a little German) and was excited to get to practise on my trip. I didn’t find much opportunity though as most people spoke English fluently and didn’t have patience for my broken German.  

Until the day when I was in an auto manufacturing room.  The workers were packaging car parts for Mercedes or Chrysler and we’d seen how they used all sorts of techniques to ensure each person could do the job in a way that fit their abilities.  It was impressive and inspiring but then it was break time, which gave me a chance to chat with the workers.  

I tried speaking with a few people but had difficulty due to the language barrier until one man invited me to sit down and have a real conversation.  He was middle aged, had Down Syndrome, and spoke no English. But he said hello and quickly answered my introductory question about how long he had worked in that shop.  I apologized for not understanding his answer and he realized that I was at a disadvantage in this conversation. 

He answered again but more slowly this time.  He told me he had worked there about 15 years. 

Verstehe? (Understand?)” he asked.

I nodded, “Ja.” 

I asked another question.  He slowly and deliberately answered.  Again he asked “verstehe?” 

We continued like this for the entire break time.  He spoke slowly, and clearly. He avoided slang and local dialect, and he always checked that I understood.  If I didn’t, he tried again with different words, simplifying so I could follow.  

He demonstrated the principle of “just ask, just listen.”  Continually asking “verstehe?” Continually listening to what I needed to fully be included in the conversation. 

I learned about his work, his home, his girlfriend, his family, and whether he was happy with his life. (He was.)

I also learned about accessibility and having a more inclusive imagination.  

A man with grey hair, and a woman with black hair are talking while looking at pottery in a glass showcase.  There is a mug with a brown sheep painted on it, and another mug with stripes.
A colleague and I admire some pottery made by people with disabilities, being displayed in a cafe run by people with disabilities. Photo taken in 2009 at Diakonie Stetten, the same organization that ran the auto-manufacturing plant described in this story.