Contrary to popular perceptions, people with disabilities are equipped with unique skills and creative capacity, giving them a powerful role to play in the world economy, whether as restauranteurs, goldsmiths, warehouse workers, marine biologists, car washers, or Costco employees.
Unfortunately, those gifts are not always recognized by the marketplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is more than double the average for those without.
Thankfully, that blind spot is slowly being revealed, whether by forward-thinking entrepreneurs and executives or in the case of Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center, university researchers and church congregations.
Thanks to a significant grant from the Kessler Foundation, researchers at the Kennedy Center are working with local churches to find new ways to provide work for young people with disabilities:
Erik Carter, a Kennedy Center investigator and special education professor, said churches and other places of worship are ideal places to begin expanding support for people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
“Congregations do a lot of disability ministries increasingly, but often that is really focused on Sunday morning or Saturday or whenever people worship,” Carter said. “What we’re really trying to do is get them to think about the other six days of the week and helping people flourish beyond that time of worship.”
… So far, seven people with disabilities have found jobs in the area through the Putting Faith to Work project. Kessler Foundation also is funding projects in Kentucky, Texas and Minnesota. Across the other states, 29 people have been matched with jobs.
Church members begin by simply talking with each individual to learn more about their unique skills and gifts. From there, personal networks and relationships are leveraged to identify prospects for employment. Discipleship plays a significant part.
The goal is not simply to blindly assign and allocate disabled persons to labor, but to align their creative capacity as closely as possible with the needs of others. “The beauty of it is getting to see somebody with their skill set the way God made them to do it,” said CB Yoder, part of the Christ Presbyterian committee.
Having spent over a year working with local churches, Carter is now seeking to roll out lessons learned across the nation, partnering with other churches and institutions to affirm the dignity and harness the contributions of the disabled.
In a society where many fail to see how those disabilities have anything to offer, whether in the marketplace or otherwise, this is a welcome development. God created each of us in his image, and he has blessed each of us with particular gifts, talents, and capacity, regardless of whatever dollar amount the market does or does not assign to our contributions.
Taking this into account, we ought not blindly assume that the market is indeed assessing those with disabilities fully and accurately. Is it really a matter of our economy not having “demand” for these workers? Surely that is sometimes the case. But how often are we simply stuck in preconceptions and prejudices? For many of us, we need to expand our economic imaginations when it comes to those with disabilities.
As Russell Moore notes in Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, our cultural task as Christians is to set the vision for how the world really works, according to God’s design. “The child with Down Syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project,’” Moore writes. “He’s a future king of the universe.” As Christians, we are not called to adopt the world’s utilitarian, materialistic perspective of humanity, adding Christian frosting where it’s convenient. We are called to engage that order through the lens of Christ and by the power of the Spirit. “The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize the present,” Moore says, “but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.”
Given the transformative power of business and the proven ability of those with disabilities to flourish in such settings, Christian congregations, entrepreneurs, executives, and yes, even universities, ought to heed these stories and respond in turn, challenging their perceptions and remembering the image of God in all people.
What we are prone to view as “disability” is likely to be the exact opposite.
(HT: Joseph Williams)