When a boy’s arms are paralyzed, how does he raise his hand in
Sunday school? How does he manage eating lunch at a church picnic
when he can’t hold his Kool-Aid or squirt mustard on his hot dog?
Crowded Sunday school rooms and events are challenging enough for
any child, but set that kid in a wheelchair, and even the ordinary
challenges of a kids’ Christmas play seem insurmountable.
I thought of that recently when I sat behind Thad Mandsager at
our church. At the age of 4, he sustained a spinal cord injury when
he fell out of bed. It’s been hard for Thad, powering around his
wheelchair using a chin control. But considering his age and severe
disability, he is handling church picnics and kids’ plays like a
trooper. He may not be able to raise his hand in Sunday school, but
when he has a question, he grips his mouth stick between his teeth
and raises it in the air-an unconventional but meaningful way of
raising his hand. I couldn’t help but think of words like
“perseverance” and “persistence,” “courage,” and “character” as I
sat in church and watched Thad sing the opening hymn along with the
rest of the congregation.
JESUS AND KIDS WITH DISABILITIES
A casual glance through the gospels will convince anyone how
much Jesus loves children. When he said, “Suffer the little
children to come unto me,” I’m certain he didn’t utter those words
in a pious, standoffish way. Rather, I imagine him bouncing little
boys on his knee, tousling girls’ hair, or kicking a ball with
kids. I’m sure he felt a sting in his heart when he saw a child
abused, ignored, or neglected.
If this shows his compassion for strong and healthy boys and
girls, oh, how his heart must’ve been moved when he saw a disabled
child! Of course, we know that Jesus healed many children, but
there were many more who never experienced freedom from being
blind, deaf, epileptic, mentally retarded, or paralyzed. Yes, Jesus
loves the little children, but especially children who are gripped
with a disability.
When we pray for a child with a disability, we wrestle not
against the flesh and blood of cystic fibrosis or muscular
dystrophy. We wrestle against powers and principalities who would
relish nothing more than to keep that child in despair. That’s why,
when it comes to reaching disabled children with the gospel, we
must first pray for them with Christ’s perspective and heart of
compassion. God will prepare the heart of the disabled child, much
as he’s working in the heart of Thad Mandsager.
The disability creates the context for the gospel to be shared.
It’s impossible to declare Christ’s love to a disabled child
without also addressing in some way the child’s physical needs.
“Perfect love casts out fear.” Never is this advice more true
than in reaching out to a child with a disability. Learn to look
past a child’s physical appearance-the twisted smile and drool of a
little boy with cerebral palsy or the bulky metal of the oversized
wheelchair of a little girl with spina bifida. Look into their eyes
and communicate the love of Christ with your smile. Kneel down to
the child’s level. Use age-appropriate language, not “baby talk.”
Talk to the child about subjects other than the disabling
condition-ask about hobbies, pets, vacation memories, and school.
At some point later on, you’ll have paved the way to ask a
sensitive question such as, “Thad, can you tell me what it feels
like in your wheelchair? What are some of the neat things about
being in your chair?”
Use appropriate terminology. Avoid words such as physically
challenged, differently abled, or motion-impaired. Such trendy
labels can communicate a sterile attitude that avoids the obvious
realities of a physical disability. You’re safe when you say, “a
child with a disability” or “a little girl with a handicapping
Develop ministries to families. Most families struggle with
financial strain, social isolation, lack of information, and the
burden of the day-to-day routine. When I talk to mothers who have a
child with a disability, I most often hear, “I am so tired.” Think
of ways you can help. Offer to learn the child’s routine so you or
a church member can baby-sit. Run errands or pick up groceries.
Such compassionate actions will win you the right to enter a deeper
level of friendship with the disabled child.
Make church accessible. Access is the key word-not only in the
rooms and worship center, but also in programs and fellowship
activities. If a child is in a wheelchair, a ramp may need to be
hammered together out of plywood. Or suggest that your church pour
a permanent concrete ramp that will say to all disabled people,
“You are welcomed here.”
Assign helpers to children. If a child is learning disabled,
autistic, or mentally retarded, your church programs can be made
more accessible if he is assigned a helper-a secure and sensitive
peer who can assist with navigating the church campus, turning
pages, writing, cutting, or pasting Sunday school materials. Train
peers in how to help a disabled friend. Once children complete the
training, they receive a special license to help out.
Request information. If a disabled child is starting Sunday
school, get all the pertinent information or health care concerns
from the parents and then alert teachers. Arrange an informal
meeting between you, the parent, and the child’s Sunday school
teacher to discuss potential problem areas and explore solutions.
Keep the communication open, honest, and yet sensitive between
parents and Sunday school teachers. This is one way to build a
relationship with the child and the parent.
DECLARING AND DEMONSTRATING THE GOSPEL
Thankfully, Thad Mandsager is involved. As he approaches his
teenage years, he helps teach vacation Bible school, leads Toddler
Praise, and occasionally helps take the offering by placing the
basket on his lap as he moves from aisle to aisle. Our church
understands that to “give” the gospel to someone like Thad involves
more than just praying and speaking. It must mean involvement.
The result? Hope! As well as peace and purpose. For a child,
it’s exciting to think about the day when “the eyes of the blind
will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the tongues of
those who cannot speak will shout for joy, and the lame shall leap
like deer.” Aside from cures here on earth, only in Christ are such
Yes, you have a lot to share with children who have a
disability-little boys who are blind can see the Light, girls who
are deaf can hear the Word of God, little ones in wheelchairs can
walk with Jesus, and even children with Down syndrome can have the
mind of Christ.
Joni Eareckson Tada is president of JAF Ministries, an
organization that accelerates Christian outreach in the disability
community. Joni’s newest children’s album is Harps and Halos (Word
JAF Ministries (Joni and Friends) is committed to accelerating
Christian ministry in the disability community through local
churches. Contact JAF for help in the following areas:
*Wheels for the World-a program where old and used wheelchairs
are collected and refurbished for distribution to needy, disabled
*JAF Family Retreats-five days of respite and refreshment designed
to provide direct ministry to families.
*Evangelistic Outreaches-special events in rehabilitation centers,
nursing homes, and residential facilities.
*Disability Awareness Sundays-help for planning this event in your
*Heart for the Disabled-courses of study in local Christian
*Disability Awareness Study Guide-a tool to teach church members to
*Special Delivery-a holiday gift program designed to introduce
disabled people to Christ during the Christmas season.
For more information about these and other programs, write: JAF
Ministries, P.O. Box 3333, Agoura Hills, CA 91301. Or call (818)
Help all children enjoy playtime with these toys:
*Inclusive Puzzles-Two puzzles: child with crutches and flying
wheelchair. Excellent quality wooden puzzles with
easy-to-manipulate pieces and replaceable parts. Cost: $18.95.
Available from Wind River Products, Inc. Call 800-743-9463.
*Hand Puppets-Set of four puppets includes a hearing-impaired
child, a sight-impaired child, a child on crutches, and a child in
a wheelchair. Sets are available in individual ethnic groups or in
a multicultural assortment. Cost: $15.99 per set. Available from
J.L. Hammett Co. Call 800-333-4600.
*Dinkytown Daycare Kids-Dolls come in multiethnic colors and can
each have their own wheelchair. Cost: Around $17. Available from:
Cultural Toys. Call 800-805-4542 for a store near you.
*Handi Swing-A specially designed swing for kids with lower limb
disabilities. The swing is propelled by arm actions. Cost: $425.
Available from Leisure Design Systems, Inc. Call 800-235-2440.
Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.