Imagine walking down the street and hearing a child say to his mother: "Mom, why does he walk that way?" Or, "Why is she in that wheelchair?" Or, "Why does he have that cane?" People with disabilities don't have to imagine such questions. They hear them regularly—at least those who can hear.

But it's not the queries of curious youngsters that bother those facing physical or mental challenges. It's the indifference, discrimination, or outright hostility that often comes from adults. During the public debate over Terri Schiavo, one especially blunt blogger wrote that Michael Schiavo had been "chained to a drooling [excrement]-bag for 15 years."

Blinded by media-induced visions of health and rugged individualism and by films such as Million Dollar Baby, many people see disability as a fate worse than death. Joni Eareckson Tada, left paralyzed after a diving accident 38 years ago, knows such private attitudes inevitably impact public policy.

"People have a fundamental fear of disabilities," Tada tells CT. "That fear drives social policy."

Jesus' Distressing Disguise

In the debate over human embryonic stem cells, Christians are right to defend the humanity and dignity of the embryo. But our well-reasoned words are unlikely to convince people who fear disease and incapacitation if we do not also demonstrate real pro-life compassion for a whole class already here—people with disabilities.

These neighbors are all around us. And we must not, like the Levite and the priest in Jesus' parable, pass by on the other side of the road. There are an estimated 50 million people with disabilities of all kinds in the United States, and 600 million worldwide. Each one, to borrow a phrase from the late Mother Teresa, is Jesus in "distressing disguise." Relatively few of us see past that distressing disguise to obey the Lord's command to do good unto "the least of these my brethren."

Tragically, the lives of individuals at risk are viewed as expendable. A recent report on assisted suicides under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act found that in 47 percent of the cases, one of the motives in the decision was "concern about being a burden on others."

In the Flanders region of Belgium, a study published in The Lancet found that almost half the newborns who died during one year were "helped" to do so by their doctors. According to a media report on the study, physicians believed the babies in question had no real chance of a "bearable future."

But countless people with disabilities live full and productive lives. Regardless, Tada says, "We just don't know how to deal with any positive aspects of disability."

Disability may open the door to the work of God. Jesus' disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The Lord said the man's blindness presented a divine opportunity "that the works of God might be displayed in him." We, too, have the daily opportunity to display those works among the disabled.

Of course, reminding the church to care for the weak is a little like asking a fish to swim. It's what a healthy church does naturally. College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, offers a disability ministry "to make access to worship, ministry, and fellowship a reality for any child or adult with special needs."

The church helps people with autism or pervasive developmental disorders and their parents through special Sunday school classes, inclusion programs, recreation nights, summer camps, and other opportunities. Dawn Clark, director of the ministry, points to Luke 14, saying, "God has called [the disabled] to be part of the banquet. We have a mandate from Christ."

Concern for the defenseless has characterized Christ's body from the beginning. The early Christians stood strongly against the widespread practice of infanticide, rescuing exposed infants and raising them in their own homes.

Today, we face a new round of infanticide dressed up as compassionate and enlightened social policy. Our responsibility is to lovingly demonstrate that people are valuable because they bear the image of their Creator.

Unfortunately, the percentage of churches actively engaged on the issue is extremely low. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted. Existing church buildings were exempt from many ADA mandates regarding accessibility, but many cities and states have laws that do not exempt churches.

Whether the law mandates it or not, we should make every reasonable effort, especially as we build new facilities, to remove the physical barriers that keep the disabled from our houses of worship. This means providing curb cuts, ramps, adequate handicapped parking spaces, and doors and aisles wide enough for a wheelchair. If we don't, they won't come. The disabled and the family members who care for them constitute one of the great unreached groups of our time.

Just as important as physical accommodation is an attitude that welcomes the physically and mentally challenged with open arms. A church that welcomes the disabled is great, but a bolder step forward is for churches to be inclusive. When people with disabilities are recognized as participants, not as "the needy," we all benefit. Paul reminded the Corinthians that "the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." The disabled need the church—almost as much as the church needs the disabled.

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