Disabilities and Deacons: Defining Disability
About 20 percent of the population in North America lives with a disability. To minister well with people who have disabilities, we need to understand the wide range of disability and the ways in which all of us can unintentionally exclude people with disabilities from the life and ministry of our churches.
Here is a helpful description of disability, “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This description has two parts: specific areas of impairment and the response of society.
Areas of impairment
Physical impairments: paralysis, amputation, chronic pain, arthritis that gets in the way of the tasks of daily living, chronic fatigue syndrome.
Mental impairments: depression, bi-polar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, eating disorders.
Intellectual impairments: people who have significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in the ability to engage in many everyday social and practical skills.
Sensory impairments: mainly hearing and visual impairments.
Over the years I have heard people tell me that they have no one in their congregation who lives with a disability. I assume that the people who told me that overlooked the “shut-ins” who no longer worship at church due to chronic illnesses, the people dealing with mental illnesses, the kids having trouble in school due to their ADHD, the older men and women who are having trouble with their hearing, vision, and mobility, and so on. Every church has people who have disabilities.
As Angela Elliott wrote in response to Melissa’s blog last week many people live with non-obvious disabilities, “I have MS and in my case it's still very invisible. A lot of disabilities are invisible, like mental illness and chronic pain. I would like churches to think beyond the visible and to provide a safe place for people to say, I'm struggling, this is a limitation in my life.”
Response of society to people with disabilities
Although most of us think of disability as located in a person, disability is also located in the response of society. Therefore, this description of disability continues, “impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”
For churches to minister well with people who have disabilities, we need to recognize who they are and we need to do something about our own participation in making life more difficult for them. People with disabilities must deal with physical, architectural, communication, and attitudinal barriers that hinder their participation in society and in the church. We erect barriers both by what we do – such as steps, narrow doorways, and inaccessible bathrooms - and by what we do not do – such as make available large print bulletins that include everything that also is projected on the screen in front.
Armed with a better understanding of disability, what can deacons do to enhance their ministry?
- Identify: with the elders and pastor, go through the church directory and identify everyone in the congregation who lives a disability.Be sure to think broadly about disability as described above including people who have non-obvious disabilities.
- Discern needs: talk with the people who were identified to find out how the church can be of assistance. Disability Concerns has prepared several questionnaires prepared for this purpose. Find them under "Discerning Needs" on our Resources for Caring Ministry page.
- Commit: Decide as a council and congregation that you will make inclusion of people with disabilities a priority. Adopting a Church Policy on Disability can be a good first step.
These action steps may sound overwhelming, but in reality they present a straightforward way to intentionally and systematically discern whom the deacons may help, including people who may be feeling neglected and isolated due to their disability.