In May, Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN) celebrated fifteen years of helping congregations “catch the vision” of barrier-free worship, programs, leadership, and community life for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Jim Smith, president of ADN’s board of directors, was one of the organization’s founding members. Reflecting on the significance of this anniversary, Jim remarked that ADN’s vision has always been to help Anabaptist communities move beyond ‘mere politeness’ towards people with disabilities and instead, become communities that embrace and nurture the God-given gifts and capacities in each person.
When Jim talks about the need to advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the church, he speaks from personal experience. In December 1999, Jim was in a car accident that caused damage to his spine resulting in paralysis from the waist down. As he navigated life with a new disability, Jim and his wife Phyllis became convinced of the need to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the church. In 2002, Jim was approached by a group of local Mennonites who drea
med of creating a support system for families impacted by disabilities. He jumped at the opportunity to be involved. The primary purpose of the group was to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in surrounding church communities. Disability ministry in the Mennonite Church had first been a mission of Mennonite Central Committee. Later, this ministry was housed by Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA; now Everence). Around the time that Jim was approached about starting a regional disabilities advocacy group, MMA was releasing the disabilities ministry program. The newly formed regional advocacy group began preparations to take advocacy for people with disabilities in Anabaptist congregations all over the US and Canada. Anabaptist Disabilities Network was born as an independent organization.
Over the past fifteen years, ADN has published books, consulted with churches and individuals, advocated and presented at church conferences, delivered sermons, conducted accessibility audits, and published hundreds of online resources. Given the advocacy and networking nature of the organization, the true impact of ADN is difficult enumerate. Christine Guth who worked as ADN’s program director for more than ten years said that over the course of her career with ADN many congregations began to recognize that accessibility, at least physical accessibility, is a non-negotiable. She credits these inroads to the many field associates and church advocates who have passionately contributed to ADN over the years. Kathy Nofziger Yeakey, ADN’s current executive director, attests to the fact that increasingly more congregations are ‘catching the vision’ of accessibility. She reports that churches and conferences are partnering with ADN to guide their program and building planning. For example, when Prairie Street Mennonite Church and Benton Mennonite church recently completed building renovations, they incorporated suggestions from ADN accessibility audits and consultations. Additionally, ADN has been instructive and influential in helping to make denominational conferences of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite Church USA more accessible and inclusive to persons with disabilities.
Jim is inspired by the joyful enthusiasm for disability advocacy shared by ADN volunteers, staff, and board members. Connecting with this organization has been a privilege and blessing for many people over the course of fifteen years. As such, ADN’s base of supporting individuals and partner congregations has continually grown.
While ADN has had many reasons for praise and thanksgiving over the past fifteen years, disability advocacy has faced, and will continue to face, numerous challenges. While physical accessibility is more widely recognized, disability ministry and inclusion for people with a variety of disabilities is often viewed as an “optional extra.” Both Jim and Christine suggested thatbecoming a barrier-free community is unfortunately not a high priority for many churches faced with endlessly competing priorities.
Regrettably, this assertion is corroborated by research. Although religious participation and spiritual connection has been associated with a host of positive outcomes for people with disabilities, including an overall enhanced quality of life, people with disabilities are less likely to attend worship services, Bible studies, and other church programming. (Liu, Carter, Boehm, Annandale, & Taylor, 2014) People with autism are more likely to reject organized religion, (Caldwell-Harris, Murphy, Velasquez, & McNamara), and parents of children with disabilities who are attending church, generally report feeling unsatisfied by the level of support provided by their faith community. (Ault, Collins, & Carter, 2013) Sadly, 47% of parents with children with disabilities reported that they refrained from participating in religious communities because their children were not welcomed. (Ault, 2010)
This exclusion and injustice for people with disabilities that persists in many of our congregations is disheartening, discouraging and hurtful to everyone touched by disability. It also reveals just how vital and relevant ADN’s mission continues to be fifteen years since its nascence. After years of commitment to advocacy, Jim reminds us, “The first fifteen years represent only the tip of the iceberg in an Anabaptist movement for barrier-free church participation and ministry.” Indeed, there is much more work to be done to help congregations catch the vision of growing into a more inclusive body of Christ.
What does the future hold for Anabaptist Disabilities Network? Jim hopes that ADN will persist long into the future and continue to help people with disabilities discover the transforming grace of Jesus Christ through membership and participation in church congregations. He and all of us associated with ADN envision a future in which all people find belonging, empowerment, and spiritual connection in the church. We look forward to the time when the full diversity of the Kingdom of God is represented throughout our faith communities.
Denise served as program director for ADN from October 2016 through June 2018. She lives in Goshen with her husband and works as a school psychologist. She and her husband attend East Goshen Mennonite Church.
Liu, Carter, Boehm, Annandale, & Taylor. (2014). In their own words: The place of faith in the lives of young people with Autism and Intellectual Disability. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 52(5), 388-404.
Ault, M. J. (2010). Participation of families of children with disabilities in their faith communities: A survey of parents. Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (919088298).
Jones Ault, Collins, & Carter. (2013). Congregational participation and supports for children and adults with disabilities: Parent perceptions. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 51(1), 48-61. https://doi.org/10.1352/1934-9556-51.01.048