How to Minister to the Disabled

Q and A with Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada is the founder and president of JAF Ministries (Joni and Friends), an organization accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community. A diving accident in 1967 left Mrs. Tada a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, unable to use her hands. During two years of rehabilitation, she spent long months learning how to paint, holding a brush between her teeth. Her role as advocate for disabled persons led to a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability.

She records a five-minute radio program, "Joni and Friends," which is heard daily on over 700 stations. A popular conference speaker, she also serves on several boards and has received many honors. She is the author of twenty-one books, including her autobiography Joni. Her best-selling and award-winning books for adults cover topics ranging from disability outreach to euthanasia and assisted suicide. She has also written several children's books, the most recent of which, Tell Me the Promises, received an Evangelical Press Association Gold Medallion Award in 1998.

Q.    What are the biggest obstacles for a physically disabled person?

A.    Most people might assume the biggest obstacle is lack of access to programs or facilities, but not so. It's really the attitudinal barriers that exist within the body of Christ. Many jump to negative assumptions about people with disabilities, approaching them in the context of their handicapping condition and expecting very little from them. If a disabled person is in a wheelchair, immediately he is defined as "wheelchair-bound." We forget that these people have hopes, dreams, and interests just like everyone else. God has allowed them to experience a disability for His good purposes and He has a special design for their lives.

Q.     How can the church best minister to the physically disabled?

A.     It's always good to look at a person through the eyes of the Lord Jesus. Some disabled people may seem off-putting - they may drool or talk in a guttural tone. Many Christians feel embarrassed and tiptoe in wide circles around such people, leaving it to more gifted believers to reach out and minister to them. Most people don't feel very well-trained; they also don't want to find themselves in an awkward situation, possibly embarrassing the disabled person.

What most people don't realize is that the disabled person will gladly bridge the distance and help an able-bodied person understand his condition - if that person will only be willing to reach out. That makes it possible to see beyond the drool, the twitching head, the snarled hand, or the wheelchair to see the disabled person for who he really is.

Christ always addressed the disabled in some way. Sometimes he healed their conditions, sometimes not. But he never ignored them. The condition comes with who I am; so if you want to ask me out to lunch, you may have to cut up my food or put a special spoon in my hand. Perhaps I need a ride to church or some housekeeping chores done. There are many practical ways to address the needs of the disabled, but it all starts with asking.

Q.     What are the goals of your ministry, Joni and Friends?

A.     We want to communicate the Gospel and to equip Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple disabled people. We believe that all people, including the disabled, need a saving knowledge of Christ. We see that the disabling condition can give a person an extra edge, because suffering is nothing more than hell's splash-over, warning us of coming judgment. The disabling condition can be an advantage to an individual's soul; God has a message for that person and he is sitting right on it. Our ministry addresses not only the physical needs - providing ramps and widening doorways - but also the spiritual needs. Aside from a disabled person coming to Christ, we want him integrated into a church fellowship as an indispensable believer (1 Corinthians 12), as the Bible commands. As that individual is integrated, the church has many opportunities to roll up its sleeves and learn how to practice sacrificial service. What better way to do that than with a person who has real physical and family needs?

Becoming a disability-effective church begins with a good knowledge of God's Word, because the Lord doesn't tiptoe around disabilities at all. In Exodus 4:11, He makes it clear that He is responsible for allowing disabilities. The buck stops on His desk. He doesn't delight in someone's disability, but He has perhaps chosen it for a reason. I often say that God allows what He hates to achieve what He loves. We want the church to understand this. Some Christians have difficulty with the child who has spina bifida or the elder who was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Not knowing what to do, they determine to meet these people's needs as best they can (most often awkwardly) until the person "gets better." But many people have conditions that won't "get better."

I would challenge the church not merely to be zealous in their orthodoxy, but also zealous in their passion to make Christ real to people who are despairing of their conditions.

Q.     How can churches practically minister to the disabled?

A.     First, a church should assess the needs in their congregation. Some members may not be attending worship because they need help getting a disabled family member to church. Maybe the church has parents who would love to come to church, but there's no Sunday School provision for their disabled child. Fear of an autistic outburst in the worship service keeps them home to avoid acute embarrassment.

Churches have come up with some wonderful responses to various needs. One church has a buddy system: deacons take turns shepherding a disabled youngster through the entire Sunday School and worship hour - sitting beside an autistic young person or even taking him out to walk off some of his autistic energy. Mom and Dad can then enjoy Sunday School or worship. Another church has a Friday night ministry called Save Our Sanity (SOS), in which a team of youth is trained to baby-sit a disabled child to give the parents a date night. One church even raised money for the parents to get away for a weekend - their first vacation in ten years! In Memphis some graduate physical therapists set up exercise sessions at their church, keeping up with patients from their rehabilitation clinic.

Obviously, mercy care facilities, respite care, camping programs for the disabled, and other ministries are also possibilities. But it begins first with determining the needs, praying, and designing an individual response.

Q.     What has been the most significant impact of your ministry?

A.     Many years ago when I was first injured, I was challenged to write a life message - what I felt was God's unique purpose in my life. I said that I believed I was to be God's best audio-visual aid of His power shown in weakness, so that I might encourage others.

That message has not changed in the thirty years that I've sat in this wheelchair. I'm convinced that part of God's plan for my life was that I show others His sovereignty, that no accidents occur in the Christian's life. While there is a time to weep, there is also a time to move forward through the energy of the Holy Spirit to discover God's message. That message has influenced the church's perspective on disabled people; they are no longer marginalized and disenfranchised people.

I also think that God has used my example to challenge church leadership to examine what 1 Corinthians 12 means when it says "the weaker members are indispensable" or "we are to give them special honor." What does "God's power shows up best through weakness" mean in 2 Corinthians 12? What does it means to boast in your afflictions or delight in your limitations and glory in your infirmities? How can those with disabilities make a church richer? We are all richer when we recognize our poverty, and we're all fatter with God's grace when we recognize our leanness. Sometimes it takes someone with a very obvious physical or mental problem to enforce the reality that God is working in all of our lives in different ways.

Q.     What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone who is physically disabled and losing hope?

A.     First, let go of your hope that you will be healed in this life; that may not happen. Sometimes false hopes - running from one healing service to the next -- can be more demoralizing in the long run than anything else. Next, spend time praying and reading God's Word. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God; if the opposite of hopelessness is faith, then get into God's Word and boost your faith. When you pray, don't merely petition God; listen to what He has to say to you. Next, if you are not involved in a church, find one. God never meant for any of us to suffer in isolation; that's why He created a spiritual community. We need to be plugged into that community, where people can be the hands and heart of the Lord Jesus to you. Finally, look for someone else who is in a more hopeless situation than you. I'm always strengthened when I take the time to telephone someone who I know is in a situation more desperate than mine; it invariably puts my condition in perspective.

RTS Can Help You Reach Out

RTS is developing a new distance education course entitled "Disabilities and the Church" with the help of a recent foundation grant and information from JAF Ministries ( The purpose of the class will be to prepare leaders and lay persons, both able and disabled, to improve church outreach to those with disabilities.

Students will learn biblical perspectives on friendship, apologetics, evangelism, discipleship, and leadership as related to the hardships of physical and mental incapacity.

Beginning this spring, audiotapes, notebooks, and interactive online resources on the Internet will make the instruction available to anyone from the RTS Virtual Campus at

For more information, call 704-366-5066 or send e-mail to:

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Last updated 3-30-1999.