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Turning barriers into bridges

By Ken and Joni Dignan

Approximately 43 million disabled people live in America in 1993. They are a minority who can no longer be ignored.

America is slowly but surely trying to understand the unique challenges facing this segment of the population. Pressure has been placed upon Congress to pass legislation to make a normal life more accessible to the disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been referred to as the "civil rights legislation for the disabled." Signed in 1990, the law bars discrimination against people with all types of physical and mental disabilities and requires immediate improvements in mass transit, government services, and telecommunications. Employers, public facilities, and transportation services are making changes quickly to comply with the law.

The church must also, not only making its buildings more accessible and updating its hiring practices but by fostering an informed, loving climate in which its disabled members may grow in the Lord. A recent study indicated that people with disabilities are more concerned about attitudinal accessibility than physical.

Only 14 percent of disabled Americans attend church regularly. Thus the church faces a real challenge. Unfortunately, this challenge can be easily overlooked because many people ignore three facts: the personhood of the disabled, the hindrances the disabled face, and God’s desire to use the disabled.

The personhood of the disabled

Contracting polio at the age of 14 months, I have lived with physical impairment all my life and have experienced firsthand misconceptions people have about the disabled. A nationally appointed home missionary to the disabled once told me that when we first met at college he felt uncomfortable around me because of my deformity. Charlie stepped beyond his fears and saw I was a person made in the image of God, just as he was, with great potential to serve the Lord. Little did he know the Lord later would call him into full-time ministry to the disabled.

Christians often look at the disabled as sick and in need of healing. Their emphasis is to get the saint healed and out of the wheelchair. Most disabled would welcome a healing, but that is, not the only focus of their lives. They have dreams and disappointments, failures and successes. They want to be a friend, a brother or sister in Christ, and an active participant in the church–as persons.

Hindrances faced by the disabled

Among the strongest, most disciplined people I know are those with handicaps. They face odds that would make someone with a normal body give up. Getting up and dressed in the morning (often depending on the timetables of those around them) and traveling to their places of employment or churches–on time–requires superhuman effort. If their attendants are unavailable, the weather is bad, or their transportation plans have changed, they are helpless to change the situation. Developing a ministry to the handicapped in a caring church includes understanding these hindrances and helping the disabled overcome them. Emergency assistance, transportation help, friends who will call to check on absent members, and support groups consisting of disabled and nondisabled are excellent ways to break down barriers.

Examine your church building and see what would prevent someone with a handicap from attending regularly. Take a ride in a wheelchair. Hindrances will jump out at you, such as stairs, too-narrow doorways, or inaccessible rest room facilities. Building bridges to the disabled can include a simple ramp, an interpreter for the deaf, or a Sunday school class dealing with disabilities. James said, "If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet.’ have you not discriminated among yourselves... ?" (2:3,4, NIV).

God’s desire to use the disabled

Sometimes Christians have the idea that ministering to the disabled is a one-way street. In doing so they overlook the wealth of wisdom and experience the disabled have to offer, for they have learned His grace is sufficient for them–that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). Who would be more qualified to teach a class on "The Overcoming Life" than one who has learned firsthand? Who would be more effective at greeting visitors with a smile, welcoming them to the very church that reached out to them in love? Who could better sing the praises of God in the choir than one who has learned to give thanks in everything-even when it hurts.

The open-door policy must include hiring qualified disabled personnel and clergy. The percentage of disabled people in full-time ministry is minute. If ministers are qualified, the church must not deny them pulpits and positions. If God has called and equipped them to work for the Kingdom, who are we to question His abilities?

I pastored a church for 10 years, watching it grow from 20 adults and 20 children to a growing, thriving group of 350 to 400. If that small group of people had looked at me 10 years ago and said, "But he’s handicapped," the church wouldn’t be what it is today. They gave me a chance to prove I could do it. With the Lord’s help, and that of my family and a great congregation, I did it. Some say it is the most loving church they have ever attended. Could it be the congregation learned there are no acceptable barriers between brothers and sisters who love and seek to understand their differences, whether physical or spiritual? More than once my parishioners would answer a visitor’s question, "Is my pastor handicapped? No, I don’t think so."