When you fill out the initial paperwork to begin an adoption, you receive a two-page form called the “Special Needs Consideration List.” It’s full of medical terms, some as minor as moles and some as major as cancer.

I’ll never forget sitting in bed with my husband, reading off each special need and saying “yes” or “no” or “maybe” as I clicked the little boxes. We both felt a strange draw to “deafness.” We didn’t know any deaf people. We didn’t know any sign language. But this was one of the needs we were open to.

When Special Needs Aren’t Scary

After a lot of waiting and a lot of money leaving the bank and a lot of hand cramps from paperwork, my husband and I received the file of a little girl in Tianjin, China named Ya Zhu. She was older than what we’d thought we were open to and her needs were greater than what we planned for.

Ya Zhu was almost four, but she couldn’t walk and wasn’t potty trained. There were concerns about her cognitive development.

Many doctors and specialists said we ought to proceed with “great hesitation.” One told us not to move forward at all. They all agreed there must be something else very wrong with Ya Zhu because her delays were so significant.

But my husband and I managed to stay mostly peaceful. We didn’t know if Ya Zhu would heal and recover. We didn’t know how hard things would be. We didn’t know if she’d be a joyful child, but we decided to rename her “Joy.” We hoped and prayed adopting her would give her hope and a future.

Learning sign language wasn’t scary. Meeting Deaf people through ASL classes and a local Deaf church wasn’t scary. Even boarding that 14-hour flight with a bag full of big kid diapers wasn’t that scary. God was leading us to Joy, and He was with us. He had come through in so many ways: checks from strangers to cover adoption fees at exactly the right time, comforting words from the Bible, people who moved our anxious hearts toward rest, doors opening and closing and freelance jobs falling out of the sky exactly as our adoption agency was asking for another payment. God was with us. He kept proving He was in the process and supporting it and leading it. We weren’t afraid.

When Special Needs Are Scary

But then, we met Joy. Her hands were clenched around pieces of cracker she wouldn’t put down and she was holding a wad of food in her cheek. She seemed barely able to control her own body. It’s really hard to explain the pain of it all. We’d been trained. We knew adoptions are birthed out of loss and trauma. But holding this stranger—this resistant, confused, sick, stranger —was scary.

We were convinced Joy would never walk, never learn, never leave diapers. I wondered if our family would ever laugh again. If we’d ever have an easy Saturday at the park. I wondered how much wheelchairs cost and what my other children would miss out on because of this decision we’d made.

But while I was afraid in China, Jesus met me there. He reminded me that I was, and so often still am, a child with special needs who doesn’t know how to rest in the love of her adoptive Parent. He reminded me that I am the little girl with broken ears and broken eyes and my hands clenched around everything I can grab, and yet He walked into this broken world so He could adopt me into His family. Romans 8:15 reads: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”

Life with Special Needs

Joy is five now. She’s more than doubled in size since her adoption, is fluent in sign language and actually advanced in communication according to an evaluation from her school. With a hearing aid, she can hear and understand English, and after a year of physical therapy, her therapist suggested we discontinue her services because Joy no longer needs the extra help.

Life with Joy is so different, but she has certain challenges the rest of us don’t. For one, she can’t speak. The way we communicate requires more skill and patience. Stepping into her set of special needs wasn’t and isn’t always easy, but we consider it to be one of the greatest gifts in our lives.

Joy points us to the gospel without even knowing it, and she’s made her family into more patient, less selfish people. She’s taught us special needs aren’t scary. She’s taught us that every human being on earth has special needs.

Saying “Not No”

Me and my scared self didn’t magically become brave and skilled in special needs care. My husband and I just took it a step at a time. We said “not no” to the Lord every day. And that’s still what we do.

Not every person is called to adopt. Not every person is called to special needs. But, we are all called to love.

Don’t let fear be what keeps you from loving people who are different. Special needs don’t wreck our lives, just our self-righteousness. They wreck our self-sufficiency. They wreck our tendency to distract ourselves from suffering.

Some people have special needs you can see; some don’t. Some people have physical needs, some mental. I’d argue all of us have a special blend of emotional and spiritual special needs. With that in mind, we don’t have to be afraid of people who wear the label more clearly. People with “special needs” teach compassion. They expose the flimsy and faulty ideals we have about how much control we have over our lives. They remind us we are all fearfully and wonderfully made and that our purpose in this world is to share the love of God with a wounded world that so desperately needs it.

In my life, God has used the world of special needs to make me stop depending on my life plans and my strength. Instead, He’s offered me His plan and His strength. When Joy’s special needs caused her to depend on me, I had no choice but to take my weakness to God.

I’m not strong. I’m not powerful. I’m not “normal.” I’m as dependent as my special needs daughter. We are all dependent on the power of God for our next breath. Resting in that reality is what can give you and me the ability to look around and reach out and meet the needs of others, the way God reached down from Heaven to meet ours.


Scarlet Hiltibidal is a very professional wife and mother. She is the author of Afraid of All the Things and He Numbered the Pores on My Face. She also writes a regular column for ParentLife Magazine. Scarlet loves sign language with her daughters, nachos by herself, writing for her friends, and learning how to be a pretend-farmer with her husband in Middle Tennessee.