April 11, 2014 | 7 a.m.
By Michelle Westlund, Communications Specialist, and Sue Yonker, Creative Content Specialist
As part of a week-long chapel emphasis on “Different, Not Less Than,” Bethel welcomed Joni Eareckson Tada on March 28. Tada was injured in a diving accident at age 17, leaving her a quadriplegic, and has used her remarkable life story and experiences to affect profound change in the area of disability ministry and leadership. An accomplished musician, artist, and writer, Tada is founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center and an international advocate for people with disabilities.
In her chapel message, Tada recalled the long-ago days of her hospitalization after her accident, and the comfort and hope she received from a friend who snuck into her hospital room to simply lay beside her and quietly sing the words of a hymn into her ear. Tada addressed the compelling question we all ask when we suffer, “Why?” by shifting the focus from getting answers to getting more of God. “God is not going to give us answers,” she said. “He’s going to give us Himself.”
Tada suggested that we can be like her friend—and like Jesus—by showing compassion to those who suffer pain and isolation. “Maybe Jesus didn’t call it disability ministry,” she said, “but on every page of the Gospels, He is connecting with people with disabilities.” The Joni and Friends International Disability Center advocates for people with disabilities worldwide, where Tada says 97% of children with disabilities face neglect, abuse, or abandonment. The center offers missions and internship programs for interested students and professionals, but Tada exhorted students at chapel: “Whatever your major, you will encounter people with disabilities. Remember their needs.”
Later in the day, Tada offered the Bethel community some specifics about the best ways to break down barriers between those with disabilities and those without.
Q: How was your experience at Bethel in terms of accessibility?
Joni: I immediately felt a sense of warmth and welcome. Accessibility is not just about barrier-free design; it’s also about being accessible in terms of attitudes. I have found people at Bethel to be very welcoming and embracing. I also met some wonderful students with disabilities. I spoke with one student who is blind. It was really encouraging to hear her talk so glowingly about her experience at Bethel so far.
Q: What barriers exist between typical people and those who are disabled?
Joni: It’s one of attitudes. Typical people believe the disabled person is going to take up too much time or demand too much, or see the disabled person as unlovely and someone who will alienate others. It’s so much of a “me” focus. Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” We still have a long way to go to do that. In the world, we still have racial barriers, age barriers, disability barriers. We need to break down walls of hostility and bridge those differences.
Q: How are we doing as a society in terms of breaking down barriers between those with disabilities and those without?
Joni: To me the real test is when you see friendships naturally developed—when people befriend those with disabilities and they aren’t seen just as a mission project. It’s great when there’s a natural reaching out and connection. Wouldn’t it be great if ministries that had separate departments to embrace those with disabilities instead just embraced all kids together, both typical kids and kids with disabilities?
Q: How can the church help to break down barriers?
Joni: It’s the gospel that’s going to change hearts. We can offer the gospel. And intentionally making friends with people with disabilities and just hanging out with them. It’s about inviting folks to the next social thing that you’ve got planned and getting to know people individually. When you invite someone to go out to dinner and to a movie, the disability is not there, it’s just friends. Friendship is the key.
Q: How can we at Bethel improve our efforts to reach out to students with disabilities?
Joni: It’s great that the campus is intentional in that regard: giving students with disabilities a place to go to voice their concerns and bring their requests, and having a person in a position of authority to help change classrooms or assist with counseling. It’s important that it’s staffed well. Also, anything Bethel can do to integrate kids with disabilities to create interdependence, not just independence, for all strata of students. It’s wonderful when people need each other, help each other, and serve each other.