If someone with a disability entered your church, would you know how to make that person feel at home? None of us intends to be mean, but well-meaning people often do things that trouble the disabled. The pastor, as a leader in the church, should be made aware and guide the flock on the importance of recognizing the needs of those with disabilities.
In my work representing Christian Record Services for the Blind,* I have been speaking about this issue to churches and business groups. I use Jesus’ interaction with blind Bartimaeus, in Mark 10:46–52, and humorous stories from my own experience as a blind person to show the simple things that can be done to best serve these precious souls. This article shows how the method Jesus used in first-century Judea can be applied to any location today.
In short, this method is based on the acronym SHARE, which stands for Slow down, Hear, Adapt, Relate, Empower. These techniques can strengthen our relationships with the disabled and guide us through difficulties in all social interactions, as we are all different in our own ways.
When Bartimaeus first called out to Jesus for help, the crowd wanted Jesus to ignore him. Jesus, though, stopped to minister to this person. Jesus slowed down in order to meet this man’s needs. Often, the disabled person takes longer to accomplish tasks that most other people can do quickly. We find it imperative to allow time for these people to do what they need to do and, in some cases, slow down to offer assistance. People, at times, try to rush my wife and me through line at potluck. She has to get food for two, and occasionally three when her disabled mother is present.
Not only did Jesus slow down, but He also heard Bartimaeus. He asked Bartimaeus what he wanted. Jesus, who knew beforehand what the man needed, wanted to give him the dignity to make his own decisions. The disabled often feel left out of the decision-making process, with others deciding how and when they should receive help.
Once, during college, I was returning from church when a gentleman suddenly threw his arms around me. Surprised, I asked what he was doing. He said that he was helping me to cross the street. Not only was that the wrong way to help a blind person cross the street, but I was not going to cross the street in the first place. Before someone gives assistance, I usually encourage the person to first ask, “May I help you?”
Jesus also asked Bartimaeus, not the people next to him, what he wanted. I was going into a hospital once, and a lady there kept asking the person with me if I needed a wheelchair. My eyes do not work—my legs are fine. I often wonder how much time could be saved if people would talk to me instead of having someone else relay messages to me through what I call “an English-to-English interpreter.”
Listening is an important skill in any situation. As a child, I was visiting a church before I had completely lost my vision (though my eyesight was never very good). A teacher set a songbook in my lap and kept insisting that I try to read it. I would explain that I did not see well, but she kept insisting that I try. The point is that people with disabilities know their limits and when they need help.
While the disabled pride themselves on independence, some adaptations still must be made for them. Jesus adapted to Bartimaeus by having him come to Him, which would have involved the blind man following His voice. Proper adaptation, though, can require forethought. On another occasion, I was carrying a laundry basket of clean clothes up the stairs. I wedged the basket between my body and the door so I could reach around and open the door. The plan worked perfectly until a well-meaning gentleman opened the door for me without telling me, thus releasing the laundry basket. I saved the basket with the quick reflexes that the blind acquire just for these situations. I still had to ask the man to let me know the next time he would do something like that.
There are different ways to adapt in order to help someone who is disabled. For instance, when leading a blind person, have the person hold your arm at the elbow and walk a step behind. Just remember that benches and pillars will not move out of the person’s way. When seating a blind person, place the person’s hand on the back of the chair. Everything else follows logically. When you are done talking with a blind person, let the person know you are finishing and leaving the room. I have had conversations end when I suddenly realize I have been talking to the wall for the last two minutes. Do not touch a blind person without giving some sort of warning or greeting for we do not know what to expect. When directing a blind person, do not point or refer to an object by its color. My eyes do not work, so the “blue box that is over there” is just as impossible to find for me as if it were halfway around the world. Do not play “guess who,” either—this may be cute with a child, but it gets tiresome for adults.
Finally, do not pet a seeing-eye dog on a harness. Animals easily confuse work with play, and the harness is a symbol of work.
As far as the deaf go, do not yell. Yelling just makes badly enunciated speech become loud, badly enunciated speech. Just use good, clear diction with solid lip movement in good lighting, assuming the person reads lips. Otherwise, there is always text messaging and email. Finally, when speaking through a deaf interpreter, speak as if you are talking to the one who is deaf. Do not say, “What does he/she want?” I joke that if you say that, the interpreter will sign, “What does he/she want?” and then the deaf person will sign back, “I don’t know what he/she wants; I know what I want.
With people in wheelchairs, do not lean on a wheelchair. I usually say, “Get your own!” A wheelchair is thought of as part of someone’s body, part of the zone of personal space. Finally, try to maintain eye contact with someone in a wheelchair. Do not make the person get a neck ache from tipping the head back to look up toward where you are facing.
A few things should be said here concerning building accessibility. Braille on restroom doors can be helpful as well as wheelchair ramps and automatic doors. Churches often forget to have a ramp to the platform. Someone in a wheelchair may wish to lead a prayer or preach and would wish to do so in the same manner as everyone else does.
A good example of adaptation occurred when I was at Christian Record Services for the Blind’s winter camp. While there, I downhill skied for the first time. The trainer patiently showed me the positions and motions, adapting to my slower speed of learning this type of skill. While I skied the usual way, he skied backwards, holding on to my hands so I could be steadied and safe. He heard me when I wanted to try to ski without any direct assistance from him. I had fun and learned, at least, the basics of a new skill because of his kindness.
Jesus did not just help Bartimaeus and then forget about him. Jesus started a relationship that even involved Bartimaeus becoming a follower.
The disabled do not want to simply be assisted and then be left alone. We want friends just as everyone else does. You may wish to say Hello and then ask questions. I encourage people to ask me questions about my blindness as blindness seems rather obvious anyway.
I also remind people not to stare at the disabled.
You may wish to use visual metaphors around the blind and that is perfectly acceptable. I use them regularly as I see fit.
Finally, learn to laugh. I recall an occasion when I was boarding an airplane and the flight attendant introduced me as follows, “Hello, this is Ray. He’ll be with you on this flight, and he’s blind, today.”
“Today?” I replied. “I’m actually blind every day.”
Even someone who could be considered an expert on interacting with the disabled will make mistakes. If we all learn to laugh at ourselves, we will have fun and be more relaxed; and, maybe, from being calm, we will make fewer mistakes.
Jesus did not just adapt to Bartimaeus; He empowered him. Empowerment means helping a disabled person be as if there was no disability. While healing like Jesus did may not be our path at present, there are other things we can do to empower people.
First, we can avoid words and actions that hinder empowerment. Saying someone cannot do something only keeps that person from trying. In addition, do not use a disability as a handle or identifier. I entered a hair salon one day to hear someone say, “The blind guy is here.” My usual response is, “Hi, yes, this is the blind guy.” When asked my name, I will say, “I’m Ray, but just call me ‘the blind guy.’” We would not say, “The Mexican man is here,” or “The black lady is here.” We have learned that these statements echo prejudice. We should not use a disability the same way.
Finally, we must be watchful in schools, and even in churches, concerning the issue of bullying, or what I call “peer abuse.” Children do things to each other that an adult would be sued or arrested for doing. The Bible states clearly in Deuteronomy 27:18 that there are curses that fall on those who lead the blind astray. God is a forgiving God, but He does care for those who may seem weaker.
What, then, can we do to empower others? Helping a disabled person learn an independent skill is a very good activity. Someone who has helped me learn a new song at church will hear me sing the song and feel as though he or she really made a difference. At blind camp for Christian Record Services for the Blind, I taught other blind people origami and how to grow sprouts, empowering them with new skills and empowering me with teaching experience. The leadership of a church should visit every person with a disability to see how each person might be able to contribute. Someone may have a gift that does not fit into the usual gifts we seek. Maybe there is a blind poet or a deaf painter. These people could use their arts to illustrate sermons or provide encouragement. Maybe there is a child with attention deficit disorder who would make an excellent greeter.
First Corinthians 12 discusses the body of Christ. Paul says that even the members that seem less important have great importance. Then he said that when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. The disabled, as part of Christ’s body, still have great importance. We are all one body, and so, I must ask, If one member of the church is disabled, are we not all disabled?
Finally, we can look at how Jesus used this model with every one of us: He slowed down to take note of the reality of sin, He heard our cries when we pled for mercy, He adapted by coming down and dying for us, He related to us by inviting us to pray to Him, and He empowered us with the Holy Spirit and eternal life in a new heaven and new earth where there will be no disabilities.
* Your members have an opportunity to directly help reach out to the disabled by takingpart in the special offering on Sabbath, April 13, 2013, for Christian Record Services for the Blind. Please visitwww.christianrecord.org for more details.
eHow. “About Reasonably Accommodating Disability and Religion.” www.ehow.com/info_8379618_reasonably-accommodating-disability-religion.html.
This Webpage “About Reasonably Accommodating Disability and Religion” contains general information about ways a church can meet the needs of the disabled. There are numerous links to other relevant Web sites. This site does contain a number of advertisements for products and services relevant to the disabled.
Disabilities and Faith.org. “Disabilities and Faith.” www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/.
This Disabilities and Faith Web site gives practical tips on how a church can include the disabled. A great deal of the focus here is on attitudes, how nondisabled church members can treat the disabled with respect and dignity.
Assistive Technologies for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “Induction Loops.” https://sites.google.com/site/accessibilityforthedeaf/induction-loops.
This site, Assistive Technologies for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, discusses a new technology for those with hearing loss. With this technology, sound sent through a public address system can be beamed right to the assistive devices the hard of hearing use. This technology would be useful in churches so those with hearing difficulties could follow church programming in spite of the noisy distractions in the room. This site contains an in-depth bibliography.
NAMI Faith Net . “ Nami’s Outreach to Faith Communities.” faithnet.nami.org/.
The NAMI FaithNet Web site contains information about a branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), devoted to issues of faith and spirituality. Along
with physical disabilities, mental illness is a disability that the church must also address. This Web site has many articles and links one can follow to explore this issue thoroughly.
Christian Record Services for the Blind. “Christian Record Services for the Blind.” www.christianrecord.org.
This is the Web site for Christian Record Services for the Blind. This organization offers free faith-based materials, including Bibles, in Braille, large print, audio, and electronic formats accessible to the blind. Christian Record also has summer and winter camps that allow the blind to enjoy many fun activities in a safe, faith-building environment.
Optasia Ministry. “Contact Us.” www.optasiaministry.org/contact.htm.
Bartimaeus Alliance of the Blind. “Homepage.” bartimaeus.us/index.html.
Night Light. “The Study of Biblical Languages.” biblang.night-light.org/.
These three Web sites contain material for a blind or visually impaired individual on a path toward professional ministry. There are a number of tools for spiritual growth as well as learning biblical languages. A number of Greek and Hebrew texts and helps are available from these sites that open up the world of biblical scholarship to one with a visual disability.
Books and Journals
Bishop, Virginia “Blindness and Visual Impairment and the Religious Community.” In Diversity and Visual Impairment: The Influence of Race, Gender, Religion, and Ethnicity on the Individual, edited by Madeline Milian and Jane N. Erin, 223–249. New York: American Foundation for the Blind Press, 2001.
Creamer, Deborah B. “Including All Bodies in the Body of God: Disability and the Theology of Sallie McFague.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 9, no. 4 (2005): 55–70.
Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008.
Ruconich, Sandra and Katherine Standish Schneider. “Religions and Their Views of Blindness and Visual Impairment.” In Diversity and Visual Impairment: The Influence of Race, Gender, Religion, and Ethnicity on the Individual, edited by Madeline Milian and Jane N. Erin, 193–222. New York: American Foundation for the Blind Press, 2001.
Wynn, Kerry H. “The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability Within the Yahwistic Narratives.” In This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, edited by Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper, 91–101. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
McAllister, Ray W. “Theology of Blindness in the Hebrew Scriptures.” PhD diss., Andrews University Theological Seminary, 2010.
Shrout Jr., William B. “A Strategy for Educating the Church Concerning Those With Special Needs.” PhD diss., Liberty Theological Seminary, 2007.