If a blind student walked into your seminary and expressed interest in taking a Hebrew course, would you be prepared to teach using texts in Hebrew braille? IS your IT staff knowledgeable about how Hebrew and Greek works with screen readers? Is your seminary prepared to address the cultural impact of having a person with a disability on campus? Do you feel that you are preparing your students effectively to serve those members of the congregation who may have disabilities–or, better yet, to share the Gospel with people who have disabilities?
In 2008, the Association of Theological Schools adopted new policy guidelines regarding disability and theological education in response to the proliferation of seminars and literature in this field. This guidance is now incorporated into their general policy guidelines. Note: This is a PDF document.
Many seminaries and divinity schools, even tiny ones, have launched offices to serve students with disabilities. These offices are most commonly staffed by professionals who have experience and academic knowledge of the impact of disability in the classroom, legislation related to disability and public access, etc. Each professional’s experience with serving students with particular disabilities varies. In large universities, it is common to learn that students with lower-incidence disabilities such as blindness have attended and had positive experiences. Students tend to gravitate toward schools where staff and faculty have had prior experience with people who have their disability, trusting that disability-related accommodation will be one less matter of stress while they are in school.
One of the factors at work behind the launch of Night-Light was concern for schools whose faculty and staff had not encountered scenarios regarding certain types of disability accommodations. The Internet is an excellent networking resource for coordinators working in DSS offices to find information when they are stumped. Occasionally, I read questions from professors on biblical language forums; but more often than not, there is little response to assist or provide encouragement in response. My observation is that the bulk of responsibility for creating successful experiences in the seminary or divinity school is placed on the DSS office to recommend modifications or provide accessible materials. My personal experience is that it is a holistic approach involving the DSS office, the faculty and staff, and the student all working together to address disability issues from various perspectives: practical, emotional/social, and spiritual.
I write these things to encourage you. When a person with a disability comes to you, whether it is as a student, staff, or faculty, this is not just a person you have to accommodate and “figure out what to do with,” “minister to,” etc. This is a person who has gifts you do not know yet. This is a person who wants to serve God. Please do not allow the need for accommodations to become something that anyone perceives as a burden. All of your students are being accommodated in some manner. Everything you do, whether it is giving an exam or grading a paper or supervising field education, is for their benefit, so that they are prepared for the service of their calling. Accommodating a student with a disability is just a modification of this.
In launching Night-Light as a bridge-building resource for people with disabilities and for the community, I feel that it is important to put a human face on the person with disability in seminary. Much of the content in this section is written from my personal perspective, based on answers to questions that people have asked me. I explore things as practical as getting access to books and as philosophical as how disability can change the social life at seminary–or not. Please also explore the section on faith and disability for resources that will help prepare your pastors in training for ministry concerning disability in the congregational and hospital setting. If there are questions you would like to ask, or if you would like to suggest links or resources, I hope you will email me.