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Dan Vander Plaats on God and Disability

Dan Vander Plaats is director of advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois. Elim’s mission is to help children and adults with disabilities reach their God-given educational and vocational potential.

In this edited conversation from November 2013, he talks about what God does around, in and through people with disabilities.

Why do you use the phrase "people with disabilities" instead of "people with special needs," "differently abled" or other terms?

Our view is that we need to speak in language people understand. "People with disabilities" doesn't begin to cover the gamut—but it opens up the conversation in ways people understand. How we talk about and see people with disabilities will naturally change as we come alongside them. We will think of them as people first. Even saying "us" and "them" is something that people with disabilities take umbrage with, because we all want to be seen as people first.

Your five-stage diagram about the journey of disability attitudes ends with "Stage 5: Co-laborers, in which people realize we can all give and we can all receive." When you reached this stage, what changed in what you gave and what you received?

In terms of what I'm willing to give, I am much more patient in dealing with differences in people I haven't dealt with before. I have to give people around me the opportunity to be who God called them to be. Sometimes that means giving a gift of time, even if I have a meeting to attend.

In terms of what I receive, I've become more willing to accept my own limitations rather than try to pretend that my speech does not affect my interactions with people around me.

How does the idea that we all can give and we all can receive play out when people have severe disabilities?

The mix of our culture and faith tells us that someone is valuable either because of what they do or who they are. But our true value comes because of God's work in our lives. In the case of someone with severe disabilities, their families are examples of tests of patience, trials and difficulties. Their lives test whether their communities surround the family with God’s love. So the giving and receiving isn't simply done in individuals. It's done in community.

Why does God allow disability?

Why does God allow Dan Vander Plaats to have a speech impediment? Ultimately, we may never know why. A pastor I respect greatly says that John 9:1-3 simply shows us that disability happens. And, in the case of one man Jesus healed, he was born blind "that the works of God might be displayed in him."

Can you share a story of a church that went out of its way to include a person or family affected by disability?

Hmmm. Well, I can tell about a church that didn't go out of its way to welcome but at least didn't distance itself. Vinnie Adams, a worship coordinator at Faith Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana, tells about a family with a son who has autism. At the first church they visited, their son displayed some behavior—and people sitting nearby all moved away from him. The same thing happened at the second and third churches that the family visited. Finally, they visited a fourth church, where they sat down, and nobody moved away. The lesson is that your church doesn't need to do something extraordinary to include people. You just need to accept that families affected by disability will be part of your church.

Many churches partner with Elim so that 220 adults with disabilities can go out and minister. These adults volunteer at food pantries and pack kits for 9,000 poor children in Chicago schools. They also assemble care packs for the military and for children with cancer. Churches pay for supplies and write notes to put in packs.

Farmers and gardeners notice how often the Bible talks about taking care of the land. What Bible stories or promises stand out for people with disabilities?

You naturally notice verses where Jesus comes across people with disabilities. Lately I've been drawn to verses that have nothing to do with disability, such as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Both are about encouraging and equipping believers. Why I'm drawn to them is that there's no asterisk, for instance "*unless you’re poor, disabled or have a mental illness." These verses apply to everyone. So, a church that is only equipping those who are polished is not fulfilling God's call to build up believers.

The 'building up' is not always what God is doing in the life of a person with disabilities. It's also what God is doing in you and your church to enfold, support and connect with people who have disabilities. If we believe these are covenant children, as we said at their baptism, then how are we making it obvious that everyone belongs?

Anything more you want to say about this?

Yes. Our understanding of disability needs to focus on relationship. God created us all for relationship with himself and each other. In the story of Nicodemus, he can't see the kingdom of God that Jesus says is all around us. The kingdom is "already and not yet." We see it in the redemptive work God continues to do through us, especially when we include others. Jesus was constantly including and relating to people already on earth. He didn't mean for that inclusion to be something that will only happen in heaven.

Use these resources to help your church celebrate Disabilities Week.