Doing Theology with People who Have Disabilities
Arthur and Carol Wahlers
The concept of “doing theology” is getting to the real heart of the matter. It is meaningful for all of us to look at doing theology in our daily living, in our work and in following the example that Jesus showed us in his life. For us that has meant “doing theology with people who have disabilities.”
It is estimated that anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the population in the United States can be classified as disabled. These are people “with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities.” With the graying of America that number will certainly increase. What a mission field! What a source of workers for the Lord!
In 1990 congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, generally referred to as the ADA. This law required public facilities to make physical accommodations for people with disabilities and included providing goods and services to people with disabilities on an equal basis with the rest of the general public. Except for new construction and remodeling, churches were not included in this act, possibly to skirt church-state concerns. For many it is regrettable that the church was not included in the law. However, in some ways the spirit of the ADA mirrors the biblical precepts of love of neighbor and respect for all of God’s children. It was a wake-up call for the church to take a closer look at the number of barriers that still exist within our congregations and to step up our efforts to remove those barriers and to open out hearts and our doors to people with disabilities.
Our emphasis in doing theology with people who have disabilities is to encourage “acceptance and full participation” in the church by all who have physical, sensory or mental disabilities. People with disabilities are a valuable resource for the ministry and the mission of the church. Just because a person may be in a wheelchair or blind or mentally ill or developmentally disabled or hearing impaired does not mean that he or she lacks the ability to serve the Lord effectively. Pastor Dave Andrus, executive director of Lutheran Blind Mission, is himself blind. Carroll Lynn Jolley, a member of our church in Portland attends services and bible class regularly. She is a college graduate, works for the American Red Cross, volunteers in a Good Shepherd group home, visits shut-ins and serves faithfully on the Northwest District Disability Awareness Task Force. She has cerebral palsy and cannot maneuver herself in and out of her wheelchair without assistance. However, her disability certainly does not define her personhood.
In the year 2000 the Northwest District established the Disability Awareness Task Force. To our knowledge, very few of the 35 districts in the LCMS have such an active task force. In 2004 the LCMS established a similar task force with the impetus coming from the Northwest District. Both of these groups are now very actively involved in ministry with and to people with disabilities. Lutherans are not alone in such efforts. Much education and inspiration have come from people in the Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and other denominations who have provided leadership in these efforts for many years.
We have learned to speak of a “person with a disability,” not a “disabled person.” The emphasis should be on the person. The term “disabled person” tends to put the emphasis on the disability. Our Lord saw people first as people, then as individuals who had a need or a disability. His ministry was clearly to those on the fringes of society. Can we do otherwise?
Many congregations have done some great things to allow people with disabilities to enter their church buildings for worship and service. In many instances they are made to feel welcome, wanted and needed, but there is still room for improvement. People and pastors need to be sensitive to the needs and gifts of people with disabilities. That takes the effort to become genuinely acquainted with the world of disabilities. Then it takes the time and desire to welcome all and include all in the active ministry of the congregation.
The Northwest District Task Force has a “Theology of Inclusion,” prepared originally by Pastor Joel Brauer, which has as its concluding paragraph the following: “We embrace the very Kingdom of God that we pray for when we invoke the spirit of Christ to transform our thinking and attitudes toward people with disabilities; when we structure our physical facilities in such a way that all are included in the entire mission and ministry of the parish; and when we welcome and use their gifts to the glory of God in whose image they are made.”
Many excellent resources are available to assist Christians within their congregations to welcome people with disabilities and to include them in Christ’s mission and ministry. Great opportunities are waiting to be seized!
“Doing theology” with people who have disabilities is an enriching and inspirational experience. Try it! You’ll like it!