11/19/2012 08:03 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Gifts: Living Together With Our Abilities and Disabilities

I have a disease; I am not my disease. How do I mark the 30th anniversary of living with a chronic illness? With sadness or celebration? A good way was to have a convocation on, "Living in Community With Our Abilities and Disabilities." Many people with my illness become homebound, isolate; but supported by the caring and respectful graduate school where I teach, I have been able to continue fully serving here and in the broader world. It's not a matter of some people being recipients of "gifts," but of us being gifts to one another.

At our convocation, Lisa, who uses a wheelchair, said, "Our student speakers are people who have a disability, or who are friends with a person with a disability. Our definition is broad: physical and visible disabilities (like mine), physical disabilities that are unseen, and disabilities or conditions that are mental, cognitive, or emotional. How do we as a student body, staff, and faculty live together in this place, with our gifts and limitations, recognizing each person as a vital part of the community?

"Here I am accepted and valued as a person. Before coming, I had not experienced people fully involving me. When my class had a gathering on the second floor, four guys lifted me up those steps. I was scared, but they wanted me there, and I wanted to be there. These same friends challenge me to be more fearless and independent. This is the same thing I hope I do for them. I'm finally in a place where my disability doesn't feel like a barrier to having an active life."

Aleese shared her significant hearing loss. "It has been my responsibility to assure that my disability does not affect me in school. It is common for those with hearing impairments to be excluded because they cannot hear and understand what is happening around them, or excluded because of people overcompensating."

Dave said, "I have a genetic learning difference called Soto's syndrome. I am a brother in this community of many. The real question is how can we all learn and grow together?"

Tami shared, "My medical history includes clinical depression and celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder where gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, attacks my body. These conditions are not related, but their effects can compound one another. When you cannot automatically join in something as basic as sharing bread with others, it is easy to feel isolated.

"I fight these issues by creating inclusive community by making food I can eat to share with others, by meeting others in their own needs. Sometimes accommodating everyone's needs seems like more than we can cope with -- the list feels endless. But the joy of seeing someone feel like they can now be a part of a community is boundless."

Lee added, "My friend lives with multiple chemical sensitivity related to fibromyalgia plus complications. The air she breathes and any surfaces or fabrics she is in contact with are potential sources of pain. She must be aware of what is around her."

Megan said, "Through my friendship with Lisa I have become much more cognizant of accessibility and its importance and how frustrating it is when people abuse or misuse things like accessible parking. Through two road trips we have taken together, I've learned that traveling with someone who uses a wheelchair is not that different than traveling with someone who doesn't. We just allow a little extra time for travel."

Many of our Wartburg Seminary graduates who live with disabilities serve in the church and the world. Phil, who uses a wheelchair due to cancer of the spine, is a pastor in Albuquerque. Rich, who is visually impaired, is a diaconal minister doing ecumenical congregational and neighborhood ministry in Pittsburgh. Kathryn, who is blind, served for over 21 years as a pastor in rural Southern Illinois. Chris, who has quadriplegia due to MS, does supply preaching, advocacy, mentoring, and short-term counseling in Minnesota.

At the convocation the student body, faculty and staff gathered around tables in the refectory for extended conversation about these questions:

1. What is your personal experience and/or experience with others who may have disabilities of various kinds?

2. What do you think "living in community with our abilities and disabilities" looks like?

3. Are some disabilities more "acceptable" than others?

4. How might a disability (seen or unseen) isolate us or others?

5. What sort of language is helpful (or not helpful) when speaking about persons with disabilities?

6. What good things have you seen when institutions work toward the inclusion of people with disabilities?

7. How can we as a community work toward openness and full accessibility, not because we "have" to, but because we want to include everyone?