With wheelchair users making up only 5% of disabled people it has become a poor way of acknowledging those of us with a different type of disability.
More than 1 billion people in the world are living with some sort of disability, according to a new international survey. That’s about 15 percent of the world’s population, or nearly one of every 7 people.
The numbers come from a joint effort by the World Health Organization and the World Bank. The last time anyone tried to figure out the prevalence of disabilities was back in the 1970s, when WHO figured it was about 10 percent. The current report suggests the 15 percent estimate will grow as the world’s population ages.
Like the 1970s numbers, today’s figures are at best an approximation. Many countries don’t collect numbers carefully, and definitions of disability differ from place to place. The World Bank/WHO folks sought out tabulations of people who have trouble seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, taking care of themselves or communicating. Worldwide, the most common disability in people under the age of 60 is depression, followed by hearing and visual problems.
The report includes a foreword by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who can’t feed himself or get dressed or speak without assistance because of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating and usually fatal disease. He says there’s a moral duty to help disabled people.
The head of WHO, Margaret Chan, offers up another reason: “Almost every one of us will be permanently or temporarily disabled at some point in life.” An editorial in the medical journal The Lancet points out that accommodations for people with disabilities, such as curb cuts, help the non-disabled as well (such as people with strollers).
Why even come up with a number? Knowing the prevalence of disabilities helps organizations set priorities and figure out what it will cost them to set up the kind of programs called for by WHO and the World Bank — programs that make it possible for people with disabilities to take care of themselves, to work and get around.
The report didn’t estimate the total cost of establishing such programs. And it offered no solutions for perhaps the biggest challenge: finding the money.
Read: Luke 14:7-14 “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed.”
Bible in a Year:
Exodus 12-13; Matthew 16
Qumran was a first-century Jewish community that had isolated itself from outside influences to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. They took great care in devotional life, ceremonial washings, and strict adherence to rules of conduct. Surviving documents show that they would not allow the lame, the blind, or the crippled into their communities. This was based on their conviction that anyone with a physical “blemish” was ceremonially unclean. During their table fellowship, disabled people were never on their guest lists.
Ironically, at that same time the Messiah of Israel was at work in the cities and villages of Judea and Galilee. Jesus proclaimed His Father’s kingdom, brought teaching and comfort, and worked mighty miracles. Strikingly, He proclaimed: “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14).
The contrast between Jesus’ words and the guest list of the Qumran “spiritual elite” is instructive to us. Often we like to fellowship with people who look, think, and act like us. But our Lord exhorts us to be like Him and open our doors to everyone.
The gospel must be shared with all, Not just with those like you and me; For God embraces everyone Who turns to Him to set them free. —Sper
The inclusive gospel cannot be shared by an exclusive people.
How many families in your church have a loved one who struggles with mental health problems? That’s kind of a trick question. People don’t talk about mental health problems. You’re more likely to hear them describe their child’s condition as “something like autism,” as the elder of one church we know says.
Or they might cover up entirely, as does an elder’s wife in another congregation. When her bipolar disorder swung into mania after childbirth, her family, already managing the added responsibilities of a newborn, had to manage her condition as well. But because her condition is a secret, they did so without any support beyond the usual “new baby” dinners.
The answer to the question is, if your congregation is representative of the U.S. population, one in four households will struggle with someone’s mental health problems over their lifetime. That’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, disabling chronic depression, and various anxiety disorders. Look at the faces seated around you this Sunday. Someone is probably hurting. And they’re probably afraid to tell you.
The least acceptable disability
A study where people ranked disabilities by their “acceptability” returned these results, in order–most acceptable: obvious physical disabilities, blindness, deafness, a jail record, learning disabilities, and alcoholism.
Least acceptable: mental health problems. People with mental health problems frighten us because when people become mental ill, they become someone we don’t know. A bright boy who was his family’s bright hope may find he just can’t cut it anymore as schizophrenia turns him paranoid, disoriented, unmotivated in the extreme, and overwhelmed by delusional voices that tell him, over and over, how worthless he is.
Or, in the case of bipolar disorder, a girl who was a well-liked and active member of her Teen Challenge group may suddenly turn promiscuous, run away from home, and make a new home in the streets of a strange city. Laziness. Promiscuity. Violence. Sin. That’s what many people see when they look at those with mental health problems. It’s hard to believe that people may behave in such unacceptable ways and not be in control of their behavior.
Having a mental health problem is a lot like being on alcohol or drugs, without being able to stop. Medications “work” for about two-thirds of us. That means that a third of us can’t ever get off the chemical ride that our brains produce.
For those of us who can use medications, the side effects can be daunting. I have lost about 20 percent of my small motor functionality as a result of one of the five medications I take for bipolar disorder. I prefer that to losing large motor control and having another auto accident, being so disoriented I can’t find my way home from the store, losing bowel control in a busy bookstore, gaining 45 pounds, or any of dozens of side effects I’ve experienced on other medications.
Many people become so frustrated with side effects that they stop taking medications. Only about half of us accept treatment. Even when we are treated, not everyone regains their status as a fully functioning adult. In our extended family, six people have diagnoses. Those with bipolar disorder and chronic depression are successfully medicated and work full-time. Those with panic disorder and schizophrenia are on permanent disability. Nothing has pulled them through.
What the Bible says
The Bible talks about mental illness, as well as physical illness.
It describes a king who was made mentally ill until he would recognize the sovereignty of God (Dan. 4:29-34).
It describes demonized men who lived among the tombs and terrorized everyone until Jesus set them free (Matt. 8:28-33).
It also describes as demonized a young boy that most scholars today say had epilepsy (Matt. 17:15-18). Jesus delivered him, too.
What does this tell us about illness?
First, that God is able to heal. Second, that some physical and mental illnesses are caused by demons. Third, that some mental illnesses are caused by sin. But are all mental illnesses caused by demons or sin, and is seeking God our sole resource for physical and mental healing?
Since the 1950s, we have usually sent church members with epilepsy to doctors for effective treatment with anti-convulsant drugs. In a similar way, we’ve learned that medicines can effectively treat many cases of mental illness. So if all mental illnesses were caused by demons and sin, medicine would be exorcising demons and turning hearts to repentance. That is certainly untrue, for those are the works of the Holy Spirit.
Instead, we now know that most if not all mental illnesses are biological in origin, with environmental factors possibly triggering an existing genetic predisposition to the illness. Mental illnesses, just like epilepsy, are biological disorders of the brain.
What can the church do?
Compassionate service is one of our core charges as Christians. We observe it almost daily in the experience of one man we know with schizophrenia. His life is confined almost entirely to his home due to the fear, indecision, and lethargy that have become the shape of the illness in his body. But neighbors bring him occasional meals. The secretary of his small church talks to him by telephone every weekday. Several other members take weekly calls at designated times to help break his isolation. If he doesn’t feel up to driving to his Bible study meeting or Sunday services, some member will give him a ride. Nearby relatives help him plan and manage his finances, and come by to clean occasionally and for DVD “movie nights.” Phone cards given as gifts allow him to call his mother nightly. There’s much more that could be done—more frequent house cleaning and more meals and more visits—but he enjoys far more contact with many more loving people than many shut-ins.
The challenging good news is that when people with mental illness turn to someone outside “the system” for help, the church is first to get the call 40 percent of the time. Is your church ready?
Carlene Hill Byron is the former Director of Communications for Vision New England. Through NAMI—the Nation’s Voice on Mental Illness, she and her husband, James, train churches to effectively serve people within the congregation with mental health problems and also teach NAMI’s class for families of people with mental health problems. They are members of Asbury United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, where James serves on staff. First published by Vision New England’s Ministries with the Disabled, Acton, Massachusetts.