I recently attended a fundraiser in San Francisco for our Joni and Friends Family Retreats. Every year these camps are filled to capacity and scores of families with special needs are left on waiting lists. I had no trouble pressing my case due to a local news story about a mother who had put a gun to the head of her sleeping 22-year-old son with autism, and then turned the gun on herself.
Sadly, these families aren’t finding much hope in the world. Although society tries to provide resources for families like this woman’s, some people have adopted the false premise that one is “better off dead than disabled.” While society seemingly supports the Americans with Disabilities Act, cheers on Special Olympics, and provides special education, and ramps, in the same breath it offers those most vulnerable among us a special right to die.
This seemingly schizophrenic worldview raises the question, does one’s worldview matter? I believe so. Had I been born with quadriplegia during the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, the intellectuals of the day would have viewed me as an abnormality to be fixed. What’s wrong with her? Why the defect? Persons with disabilities were considered abnormal in a normal world. But after two World Wars, a global depression, and a holocaust, Enlightenment has faded into a post-modern worldview.
Problems with a Post-Modern View on Disability
The post-modernists tout that a disability is a normal part of life in a normal world. It says, “You have a broken finger? Well, I have a broken neck—it’s all the same and so we should celebrate the joyous differences that bind us together!” Is that so? Try and convince the family of that suicidal mother in the Bay Area news. It’s simply not realistic.
This view also reinforces “politically correct” language such as differently-enabled, mobility-impaired, and motion-challenged. Such sterile terms are squeamish attempts to whitewash the hard realities of disabilities.
The post-modern view of disability fails to recognize the deeper issue that lies in our view of the world itself—the world is not normal, it’s broken.
Our world is terribly broken because of sin, and people with disabilities living in it can quickly fall through the cracks. I believe post-modernism confuses everything and solves nothing. The offer for special education includes a special right-to-die. It campaigns for disability rights while unborn babies with Down syndrome are systematically targeted for abortion.
At Joni and Friends, we promote a biblical worldview that says disability is a normal part of life in an abnormal world. So don’t call me, an SCI quadriplegic, differently-enabled. That would be like calling the sinking of the Titanic a boating accident. When we recognize that disability is a normal part of life in an abnormal world, we can begin to make sense of suffering and ourselves. Without such a worldview, we don’t know what to do with suffering.
On April 5, 2012, the New York Times reported that sales of the nation’s two most popular prescription painkillers have exploded in new parts of the country and experts are worried that the push to relieve patients’ suffering is spawning an addiction epidemic. Society holds suffering in contempt and only seeks to eradicate it, erase it, give it ibuprofen, institutionalize it, divorce it, or clone it and cure it, because society sure can’t seem to live with it. And it may only take a short philosophical hop-skip-and-jump before we begin to hold people who suffer in contempt. Wouldn’t she really be better off dead than living like that? Besides, her medical care is eating into our life savings.
Our human experience has been deeply affected by the fall of man—and nowhere is it more evident than with suffering and disability. My quadriplegia is simply a more glaring and serious form of brokenness than is common to the human experience. But there is good news! The biblical worldview assures us that God is in the process of redeeming suffering and disability.
God’s View on Redeeming Suffering
Through Christ, God is redeeming sinners—no matter what their degree of suffering. And then He is using those redeemed sinners to reconcile this broken world to Himself. What does that look like? I remember being greeted in Ghana by a polio survivor who approached me, dragging his legs behind him. The man leaned back on his haunches and with outstretched arms, he said, “Joni, welcome to our country where God is so much bigger. And He’s bigger because we need Him more!”
A biblical worldview on disability will always recognize suffering as a part of God’s redemptive plan to glorify His Son, the Lord Jesus.
Christ endured His cross, knowing the impact it would have on others. Therefore, we redeem our crosses when we persevere through suffering, knowing the impact it can have on others. We glorify God in our suffering whenever we “model” what Jesus did in the midst of His suffering.
Like the man with polio in Ghana, people with disabilities have a unique opportunity to glorify God by fitting into God’s redemptive plan to make that which is broken, whole. I experience this every morning when I wake up. I cannot even get out of bed without help, and so my disability forces me to desperately need God and His grace. And that, friend, is the right way to wake up. If I were on my feet and had use of my hands, I wonder if I would still come to God everyday in such empty-handed spiritual poverty.
Now it is true that in this broken world filled with suffering, Satan would like to think that the territory of disabilities is his. Our adversary uses autism as ammunition against God’s good name. He uses multiple sclerosis and spinal bifida to smear God’s reputation, accusing Him of being uncaring when a child is born with Down syndrome. At Joni and Friends, we are reclaiming that territory as rightfully God’s, upholding His sovereignty over everything from blindness to spina bifida. We are encouraging the Church to follow the mandate of our Savior’s words in Luke 14 to “Go out… find the disabled, lame and blind… and bring them in.”
At our Christian Institute on Disability, the educational arm of Joni and Friends, we help shape disability ministry studies in colleges and seminaries around the world. We have found that even Christian students in leading American colleges can doubt that an individual with severe cognitive disabilities is a person. Perhaps a pre-person? Or a non-person? We show them that God’s image on mankind is not marred by disability. We are all persons in His sight.
So Joni and Friends staff and volunteers will continue to deliver wheelchairs and Bibles around the world, and working to dispel the myths that disability is an evil curse. We will continue to hold Family Retreats across the US and in developing nations, because marriages affected by disability are in danger of divorce and parents need help. We invite you to help us throw hand grenades into the post-modern perspective that has pickled the minds of so many who need to grasp God’s redemptive plan to glorify Jesus Christ through suffering. We’re all richer when we recognize our poverty, and stronger when we acknowledge our weaknesses, and wiser when we admit our foolishness apart from Christ.
You Can Become an Advocate
Do you see how critical it is to promote a biblical worldview? It is a life-and-death issue. We must not allow the unborn with disabilities to be systematically aborted as a “disability prevention strategy” in our healthcare agenda. When dollars are scarce, elderly people who are medically fragile must not be considered as candidates for euthanasia. We must draw a line that organs cannot be harvested from people in persistent vegetative states. We must treat every human being with respect and dignity, especially if he or she has no concept of what that dignity feels like.
When God is ignored anywhere around the world, it means danger for people with disabilities. When the weakest and most vulnerable are assaulted, the well-being of everyone is at stake. Thank you for doing all you can to safeguard life, no matter how serious the disability, for the sake of the least of the brethren and for the sake of Christ.
Adapted from an acceptance speech by Joni Eareckson Tada upon receiving the prestigious Wilberforce Award, April 12, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
Links and Resources
Joni returns to Southern California after receiving the 2012 Wilberforce Award in Washington DC. (http://www.joniandfriends.org/blog/back-home/)
Read The Sanctity of Life from the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. (http://www.breakpoint.org/the-center/columns/colson-files/17442-the-sanctity-of-life)
To find out more about disability ministry or to get involved, visit the Joni and Friends website. (http://www.joniandfriends.org)
The Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends aggressively promotes life, human dignity and the value of all individuals – despite their disabling condition–from a biblical perspective through the Beyond Suffering course. (http://www.joniandfriends.org/BYS/)
Joni’s Favorite Things – a list of things—including great books on disability—that reflect Joni’s cheerful personality and passion for Jesus Christ. (http://www.joniandfriends.org/jonis-corner/jonis-favorite-things/)
Read and sign the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience regarding winning an unbelieving public to a Christ-centered perspective on important life issues. (http://manhattandeclaration.org/the-declaration/read.aspx)
Several Christian leaders have been asked to continue the conversation by responding to this lead article. Read their responses and share your own thoughts:
Joni Eareckson Tada is the founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, a nonprofit ministry with a global outreach. A diving accident in 1967 left Joni, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Since then, Joni’s wisdom and influence have been shared with the world through bestselling books, radio programs, television programs and frequent speaking. Her radio program is carried by over 1,000 broadcast outlets and heard by over a million listeners. Joni is also an accomplished artist and singer. She has served on the National Council on Disability and the Disability Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department.