This blog post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Kathy Dickson is a volunteer field associate for the Anabaptist Disabilities Network and a core council member for the Institute on Theology and Disability. She has her MDiv from and is on staff at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO), and attends First Mennonite Church, in Bluffton, Ohio.
I was once leading a congregational training session about disability and access in faith communities, when I provided a high statistic about how many people with disabilities remain underemployed. Someone in the audience responded, “Well, obviously. They’re disabled.” The comment was a testament to the misunderstanding, bias and ableism that can meet those living with a disability in any space, but especially when it comes to work.
Disability is defined and understood in many different ways, and the experience of disability can vary widely. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.” Each person has their own experiences, alongside any diagnosis. The way that is lived out has a lot to do with social location and surrounding infrastructure. What support is available? What spaces are open and accessible? Which spaces create barriers that prevent people with disabilities from living fully? The social model of disability proposes that what makes someone disabled is not a medical condition but the attitudes and structures of society, and it calls for an end to discriminatory and oppressive actions and behaviors against people with disabilities, by offering education, providing accommodation and incorporating universal design. Understanding disability through the social model allows us to better assess the spaces in which we live and work and worship, when it comes to disability. It also allows us to check in on how we think about work when it comes to disability.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, only 19.1% of Americans with disabilities, who were above the age of 16, were working or actively looking for work, which is far below the 63.7% rate for Americans without disabilities. Perhaps, this is part of the reason that the Department of Labor facilitates National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, which “celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present and showcases supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices.” While October has already passed this year, the awareness, celebration and push for creativity in employment for all continues to be a call. Addressing bias, prejudice or ableist assumptions in hiring and in supporting employees is an imperative, especially as disability exists in visible and invisible ways, either from birth or acquired over time.
Disability is a fluid category. Anyone could become disabled at any time.
A celebration of the contributions that people with disabilities offer is the lens that I hope we bring to our communities, congregations and organizations. I believe we all begin to thrive when we focus on finding and making space for the gifts and strengths of every person. Holding theologies that affirm every body as both whole and wonderfully made is a good place to start. But we shouldn’t stop there; practices and policies need to be in place to allow for equitable spaces, including workplaces, for all. Organizations may claim to be welcoming and accessible, but policies and practices are crucial to living out those statements. On the flip side, policies, like rights, may be in place, but the attitudes of society do not always follow. That is why each of us should be advocates in our own communities and carefully examine the reality of our space when it comes to work and disability. The Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Accessibility Resolution, which the Special Session of the Delegate Assembly recently passed, joyfully affirms that the congregations and organizations of MC USA resolve to deepen our understanding of barriers for people with disabilities.
Working to scale and remove barriers is a reality every person who experiences disability must face, and it can come as an invitation for creativity.
A host of social service programs have been developed to meet the gap that exists between the experience of disability and work. Laws protect people with disabilities who work in the business and education sectors and beyond. The question is: How do our structures adapt? How do our cultures and attitudes make space or deny it? What projects can be based on concepts of universal design that create spaces for all?
Beyond examining our own workplaces to assess our policies, practices and openness to hiring and supporting people with disabilities, our faith communities can also serve as a great resource for people with disabilities. “Putting Faith to Work” is a model that empowers faith communities to support those with disabilities, while they find and maintain employment that aligns with their gifts, passions and skills. This utilizes the personal networks, creativity and commitments that already exist in any congregation. 
The seminary where I work has taken part in the “it’s not rocket science” and “it’s not magic” approach that the Putting Faith to Work model exhibits. The dining hall on campus serves a menu that is primarily sourced from its campus farm, depending on what is in season. Imagine the needs that our one chef and an intern have when 100 people come to eat. Through creative consultation, and trial and error, in our own network, we partnered with a local high school transition program for young adults with developmental disabilities. These students come to campus during the week to learn new job skills from our chef and their job coach. For the past year, they have been our chef’s preferred team to help when a big event is on the calendar. They help greet, plate, serve, do dishes, clean and whatever else may be needed. And, on breaks, they will often beat our chef at basketball. We have a grant that helps pay for some of those hours, and at this point, we cannot imagine doing weekly lunch service for campus or serving for large events without that team. They began as volunteer interns, and now, they are paid event staff. They are an important part of our kitchen and our community; they are learning job skills; they are eager to do the work. It is mutually beneficial.
Setting this program up was not rocket science. This example focuses primarily on employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities; these employees should be met with policies that go beyond welcome and protect and empower them, with practices that allow everyone to bring their full selves and strengths to the mission of their work. Our organizations and faith communities are stronger when we allow for greater diversity.
 Bill Gaventa and Dr. Erik Carter talked about the Putting Faith to Work project in an ADNet Newsletter in 2022. https://www.anabaptistdisabilitiesnetwork.org/Newsletter/Pages/2022/Putting-Faith-to-Work-How-Congregations-Can-Support-Employment-for-People-with-Disabilities.aspx
Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join celebrates the many gifts that people with disabilities bring to our church communities. This initiative also calls us to repent as a church in the ways we have not fully seen or welcomed people with disabilities. May we commit to being more loving and aware as we care for one another.
This initiative is a partnership between Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN).
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at https://www.mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/welcoming-everybody/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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