Culture At Large

How Christian communities can support people with disabilities

Mark Stephenson

The New York Times recently published a story about abuses in New York institutions where people with disabilities live. Such reports take part in a national conversation about adults with intellectual disabilities in American society - and offer a chance for Christians to consider how we can be servants of Christ in this arena.

Some voices say that larger facilities for people with intellectual disabilities, such as the one in the story, should be closed because they are thought to foster abuse, operate in a fiscally irresponsible manner and create isolation. Sadly, abuse can happen at homes small and large. Costs at larger facilities are not necessarily less than at smaller group homes. For example, the cost to care for two particular residents who were moved from the Mount Pleasant Center in Michigan into one-bedroom homes increased by over 700 percent for each of them. Some people also argue that large facilities cause greater segregation of people with intellectual disabilities from the community. Any well-run home for people with intellectual disabilities, large or small, will enable multiple opportunities for residents to participate in their communities.

My wife and I have been listening to and participating in this national conversation because we have a daughter, Nicole, who has lived in a group home called Harbor House Ministries for several years. Excellent staff, appropriate accountability, regular communication with guardians and consistent training have created a home that our daughter and other residents love.

Our daughter lives in a complex of three homes with a total of 36 residents and which is located in a residential area. Some people claim that Harbor House is too large and should be closed. My wife and I have joined our voices with others to say that the most important question is not the size of a home for people with intellectual disabilities but the breadth of choices for least restrictive and safe housing, appropriate work and leisure activities and healthy community involvement.

Society’s care for adults with disabilities is a matter of justice. Therefore, churches need to participate in this conversation as well. In many denominations, when children are baptized, the entire congregation pledges to receive the children in love and to encourage and sustain them in the fellowship of believers. We make such promises because we believe that the Christian community covenants together to care for each other.

Harbor House grew out of a private-public partnership in which the faith community fulfilled baptismal vows by donating money, time and skills. Through this work the land and facilities are debt-free after just a few years. Room and board, staff salaries and administration are paid for by government funding. Family members, friends and staff participate in ongoing fundraising activities that have paid for the purchase of therapy and recreation equipment and a beautiful day activity building.

I challenge the Christian community to be a voice of advocacy for individuals with disabilities, to create housing options that meet the needs of our brothers and sisters with intellectual disabilities and to foster a community where everybody belongs and everybody serves.

Mark Stephenson served as pastor of two churches for a total of 17 years and is currently the Director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. This piece originally appeared on The Network.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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