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People with disabilities in the Bible

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“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”  (Heb 11:1).

Faith matters in the lives of so many people — including those with disabilities and their families. But what I hear more frequently than I should is that people with disabilities struggle to find a church and parish family that welcomes them and their unique faith needs. Why does this happen to good, faith-filled people seeking their place in a generally good, faith-filled parish? How would Jesus have treated them? What does the Bible teach us about people with disabilities?

Moses had a speech impediment yet was chosen by God to lead his people out of Israel.

Why? Perhaps because he had faith, strength and leadership abilities. Jesus encountered people with “disabilities” throughout the New Testament and sometimes those people were named — think of Zacchaeus (short in stature), or Bartimaeus (blind), or generalized descriptions of people with leprosy and people with physical disabilities (the man at the well). One thing they had in common was that they were noticed, often cared for, and not dismissed by Jesus. They were valued by the creator of the world and often used as examples for others. Why take the time to mention these people if they didn’t matter? Perhaps Jesus was thinking of them when he said, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. ... And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Mt 10:40-42) or when St. Paul said, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Rom 12:3-8).

Perhaps the ultimate message is that we should include people with disabilities exactly as if we were serving and including God himself. Perhaps the message Jesus wanted us to understand was that these things are not optional, but required by God through his son, Jesus.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in 2017, “It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together. To exclude members of the parish from these celebrations of the life of the church, even by passive omission, is to deny the reality of that community. Accessibility involves far more than physical alterations to parish buildings. Realistic provision must be made for Catholics with disabilities to participate fully in the Eucharist and other liturgical celebrations.”

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, founded and supported by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, developed practical recommendations for church congregations in order to fully embrace and support people with disabilities and their families. Their recommendations include teaching priests, church leaders and parishioners about differences they may encounter, as well as how best to support people with disabilities and their families on their faith journeys.

Their recommendations include:

• Provide Disability Awareness for Parishioners

• Offer Resources and Support for Families

• Create a Family Support Group

• Provide an Advocate for Families

• Offer Respite Care

• Provide Spiritual Counseling

• Modify Religious Education Programs

• Craft a Spiritual or Religious Education Plan (similar to an IEP)

• Provide Personal Supports for Religious Education

• Design Special Worship Services that Include People with Disabilities

• Provide Support During Worship Services

• Assist Families with Financial Support

• Assist with Transportation to Worship Services and Parish Activities

• Make Physical Structures More Physically Accessible

Faith must be nurtured, supported and guided, for hope lives in the mind while faith is found in the heart and spirit. C.S. Lewis expressed it in this way: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Let us be the megaphone God uses to awaken our church to fully support and embrace people with disabilities.

Emanuel is coordinator for diocesan Special Needs Ministries.

Find out more

For more information, email Nancy.emanuel@arlingtondiocese.org or got to kc.vanderbilt.edu.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020