Twenty percent of the population of the United States and Canada -- one of every five persons, crossing race, social, economic, gender, and age categories -- faces the challenge of a physical or developmental disability. Despite the numbers, seminary communities lag in giving attention to the educational and spiritual needs of persons with disabilities and in educating students to minister to persons with special needs.

Jeremy Funk was a whiz as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He excelled in linguistics and otherwise sailed through the course load like a schooner in a brisk wind. But his seminary transcript tells only part of the story.

Funk arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary with cerebral palsy and a hearing loss, a combination that required much ingenuity and aid from members of the campus community. He was provided with note takers to allow him to keep up with classes he couldn't hear. Professors gave him extra time to finish exams. A friend was hired to take him to places whose locations he couldn't recall. And when it came time for his fieldwork assignment, he was handed keys to a specially equipped car, the gift of an anonymous donor.

Advocates for persons with disabilities wish there were more examples like Funk's. To that end, they pursue goals of accessibility, theology, and attitude to help insure that future generations of ministerial candidates will have more of the kind of opportunities afforded to the Princeton Seminary student.

Growing Awareness

With varying degrees of effort and money, seminaries have begun opening their doors to candidates for the ministry who have disabilities. No tally of these students is available, but the number is widely believed to have inched up in the last decade. As disability awareness has slowly dawned, the list of human conditions fitting this definition has grown and been argued over. Impairments resulting from disease, accident, or birth are generally accepted without question, but discussion has arisen over some of the newer categories of learning difficulties such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD) and over a range of psychological diagnoses such as chronic depression.

According to official estimates, about 20 percent of persons in the United States and Canada live with some level of disability. By comparison, only three to five percent of church attenders fit that description, according to Robert Anderson, president of the Center for Religion and Disability in Birmingham, Alabama. To Anderson and others who study the subject, the low percentage of Christians with disabilities in the pews indicates that sanctuaries are much less hospitable than they ought to be.

And that is the driving force motivating a cluster of advocates, none with more effectiveness or spirit than Ginny Thornburgh, the director of the Religion and Disability Program of the National Organization on Disability. Thornburgh, a trustee of Princeton Seminary, is virtually a one-woman band, staging conferences on the subject, promoting the cause among seminary leaders, and offering encouragement to those in the fledgling field.

Among her primary goals, if she finds the funding, is to build a network among seminaries to share information and ideas. When asked if there is a "movement" toward raising the issue, she paused, chuckled, and said calmly, "You are speaking to the movement."

Structural Changes

On individual campuses, of course, much has happened. The school Thornburgh serves, Princeton, for example, spent $10,000 in 1997 for a survey to find out what it needed in order to satisfy requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. From there, the school launched a project that, among other things, has renovated the 1873 chapel ($125,000), installed special signs ($25,000), built a ramp to the president's house, added TTY-TTD phones for the hard of hearing, and provided a specially equipped bathroom in the student center. Each year the seminary sets aside $25,000 for new improvements. Princeton's priorities fit a pattern.

The immediate challenge for schools is usually architectural: installing, where needed, ramps and elevators, renovating classrooms to allow wheelchairs, and providing resources to respond to the special needs of students who are blind and deaf, to mention just a few. Some of these adjustments require a level of investment that hard-pressed seminaries find burdensome. But while finances are certainly a valid concern, in the words of one seminary dean, money can be used "as an excuse." As a participant from Lancaster Theological Seminary at a recent conference on theological education and disability noted, it is possible for a seminary community to make "reasonable accommodations" (the standard phrase in the field) without "breaking the bank."

A United Church of Christ study carried out by Dr. Laura-Jean Gilbert in 2000 tested some of the basic assumptions about disability within the seven seminaries directly related to the denomination and seven with historic ties to the UCC (eleven of the fourteen schools participated in the study). Administrators graded their schools on disability-related issues and faculty members were invited to answer questionnaires. Only one or two of the campuses were rated "totally" accessible to persons in wheelchairs; the rest were clumped in the "mostly" or "somewhat" categories.

The age of the school did not make it any more or less likely to have pursued accessibility. Nor, surprisingly perhaps, did a school's yearly budget. And as for the schools' recruitment materials, they contained little information and even fewer pictures that might be regarded as welcoming to persons with disabilities. Accessibility was nearly the sole concern of the seminaries in Gilbert's study, with limited efforts to include disability studies in seminary courses or to deal with negative attitudes toward persons who are disabled.

The unevenness of school policies can be bewildering to prospective students, as is illustrated by the experience of a student with a hearing impairment who applied to and was accepted by four seminaries. Three indicated they couldn't pay for a signer. The fourth, and the school where he now studies, promised to provide him what he needed.

Beyond Graduation

Denominations, of course, have their own standards that differ from those of seminaries; completion of seminary is only one part of the process. A call to the ministry carries weight, but most congregations are chiefly concerned with a candidate's ability to perform the tasks of a pastor. "Most denominations have no prohibitions," notes Anderson, "but congregations want to see a leader who represents what the religion embodies as ideal. If a person is disabled, they wonder, 'Could that person help in time of need? Make hospital visits, and so on'?"

To Mary Bodily, age 62, the problem is real. She graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary, having used a wheelchair as a result of polio, and has sought ordination as a Presbyterian minister. For years, she had been a contract specialist for the National Air and Space Administration and had raised two sons. She speaks glowingly of the seminary. "They courted me," she said, "They sought me out, coaxed me until I completed the application, and gave me a scholarship I hadn't even asked for."

The stumbling block came after graduation when she tried to be certified as the prelude to ordination. It hasn't happened, for reasons she believes relate to her disability. "Everything is great until they see me," she said. "It's the story of my life. I can do the job. I just want to be interviewed." Of those with disabilities who do get ordained, she said, "Most don't use chairs. They have learning disabilities, low vision, or other things that are not so obvious."

Scholars Speak

If church and seminary dilemmas on disability are to be resolved, seminary educators say, a transforming theology of disability is needed to light the path. Several books by scholars have already pointed the way by highlighting some central questions.

To Kathy Black of Claremont (California) School of Theology and author of one of those books, A Healing Homiletic, the stigma of disability has been borne by Christianity. The Old Testament's onus on temple officiating by persons with disabilities (Leviticus) melds with various New Testament misunderstandings of healing and disability to leave a negative image on contemporary thinking.

The residue of this tradition is to associate disability either with sin or as a "special blessing," singled out for punishment or chosen to suffer for a higher good. Is disability itself acceptable as a mark of personal creation or happenstance, one that should be embraced rather than submitted to a miracle worker? "Deafness -- is it a problem or not?" asked Dr. Deborah Creamer of Iliff Theological Seminary (Denver, Colorado) whose doctoral dissertation was titled, "The Withered Hand of God."

Creamer has taught a course in disability studies, one of a handful of such classes offered by seminaries across North America. Assuming a general climate of hospitality toward such studies, the difficulty of finding a place for it in a crowded curriculum remains. The emergence of a challenging theology of disability may help create space for it next to the pastoral courses on relating to disability and the attitudes that surround it. Other disability advocates promote a more limited objective: making it a component in such courses as Bible, Christian ethics, and church history.

A Hopeful Future

Seminaries seem receptive, at least in theory. Anderson's center has completed its own survey of theological schools. Though the bulk of its findings has not been released, Anderson underscored two results that may be telling. While 82 percent of seminary respondents said they had never intentionally examined their curricula through the lens of disability, an equivalent 83 percent of the academic leaders saw the need for "greater attention to human experiences of disability in graduate theological education."

Ginny Thornburgh is hopeful that the Christian experience can become enriched by such insight. What it would mean to persons with disabilities and the whole congregation is reflected in a scene she envisions.

"A baby is born and the pastor from First Presbyterian Church goes to the hospital. He says to the parents, 'We don't know much about spina bifida -- but I can tell you this. We won't leave you. We will journey with you in your ups and downs. This is a wonderful child of God.' That would change everything."

Boardroom Talking Points

  • What are the school's published policies with regard to national and local laws and other regulations dealing with disabilities? Who is responsible for monitoring compliance? 
  • What training is provided to faculty and staff to help them deal with students with special needs? How can faculty and staff communicate their concerns about the needs of a particular student?
  •  Is there a formal grievance process in place for students with disabilities? What have been the frequency and nature of any complaints? Is there a process to seek feedback from students with disabilities? 
  • Does the strategic plan demonstrate a commitment to creating a welcoming environment for persons with disabilities, including aging alumni, retired faculty, administrators, board members, and the seminary's older donors? 
  • In what ways does the school help equip graduates to minister to and work with individuals with disabilities and their families?

Adapted from "Managing a Growth Market of Students with Special Needs" by Marin Pfinsgraff in Trusteeship, September/October 2004.

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