Wednesday, October 8, 2014

People with Disabilities: An Unreached People Group?

Today, in our Christian community and especially in the mission-minded community, we hear about "people groups." We also speak of "unreached people groups." If you are familiar with that term, you know that this refers to groups of people who share things in common (ethnicity, religion, tribe, location, lifestyle and more). Furthermore these are people who are estimated to have few Christ-followers compared to their numbers. Usually when we think of "people groups," we think of those who share in common race, ethnicity, or tribal identity. But are we missing something?

What about a people group among us whom we may never have thought of?

People with disabilities. I mean visible disabilities like blindness, using wheelchairs, missing limbs, severe cognitive impairments or more. I mean invisible disabilities like autism, Asperger's Syndrome, epilepsy, mild intellectual disabilities and more. I wonder if your observations and research have been turned up conclusions like mine?

I have belonged to and visited multiple congregations throughout my life. I have browsed Christian bookstores. I have read many Christian books. I have also read, and base much of my prayer life on, books on missions. I have consistently noticed one common denominator. While there is an rightful, expanding awareness of the need to reach out to the ever-increasing immigrants among us with Jesus' love I see little awareness to likewise reach out to the millions in the disability community. I'm talking about the many people who have visible disabilities (blindness, orthopedic disabilities, severe mental disabilities, loss of limbs) and invisible disabilities (deafness, mild intellectual disabilities, learning differences, autism, epilepsy, and more). I think I can understand the reason for this neglect.

I know. I know. It takes time and effort for Pastors, church leaders and church members to educate ourselves about the various disabilities and how they work with those who deal with the people who face them. This is especially true in the case of invisible disabilities. And, even if we educate ourselves, it will cost money and moving out of our comfort zones to make accommodations for certain disabilities. To give blind persons accommodations, audio books and Braille materials must be offered. To give deaf people accommodations, interpreters and members who know sign language will need to be available. To welcome those who use wheelchairs, the church build will need to be ramped. I can go on and on.

In my past experience, both as a church member and in research on available Christ-centered resources and church awareness, I have noticed that the Christian community has long been aware of the challenges of children and, less often, adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Schools have been able and willing to give children with that diagnosis accommodations. In an earlier congregation, however, I heard horror stories of parents with children diagnosed with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. They tried their children out in the church-based school that this congregation affiliated with. The educators were ill-equipped to deal with autism or Asperger's. This was the same situation in another congregation, which offered accommodations so limited that only one part-time reading/speech therapist was available to the church-based school (rated a Blue Ribbon school!). As I browsed Christian bookstores, I found very few resources about disabilities and the Christian community. The few that had been written, were addressed to church leaders to welcome those with the more severe, visible disabilities. With the exception of Joni Eareckson Tada, herself a person with a severe visible disability, very few materials have been written by people with disabilities for the Christian community.

Yes, I know that things are improving. I know of congregations which have special needs ministries and/or small groups for people with disabilities. I know that some churches are trying and need to be given credit for that. I salute them. Yet in proportion to the millions of people with some kind of visible or invisible disability, many do not belong to congregations and fewer are active in them or fill leadership positions including on church boards. I guess most do not see that there is any place in our local churches for them. Many may indeed long to serve God through a local Church but may feel unwelcome so they may stay home on Sunday mornings. I think it is easier to accommodate and welcome those with the more severe, visible disabilities because the need is obvious. But I have heard of many families of autistic children, and autistic adults themselves. They say that they avoid local churches because they do not feel welcome there or by the Christian community in general. Many have taken to finding Christian fellowship online. But virtual fellowship can do only so much for us socially or spiritually.

To accomplish this task of doing much more to welcome people with disabilities is a huge task. Like anything else we are asked to do, it will be a sacrifice of time, effort, creativity and money. But God tells us it will be worth it. He says, "Accept others as you have been accepted, then God will be glorified." (Romans 15:7, NIV).

National Association of the Deaf

Autism Society

Epilepsy Foundation

Invisible Disabilities Association

The Arc: For People with Intellectual and developmental Disabilities

And you can search for much more on Google!

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