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Be like Eunice: Welcome people with disabilities

Bishop Peggy Johnson signs the word “faith” during her consecration service in 2008
in Harrisburg, Pa..
UMNS file photo by Suzy Keenan.  

A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Peggy Johnson*

Sept. 1, 2009

The world lost a great advocate for disabilities with the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She was the sister of the late President John F. Kennedy and a tireless worker for not only people with disabilities but human rights in general. She worked in the prison system and cared about people on the edges of life.

Her great interest in disabilities came from her own family experience. Her sister Rosemary was intellectually challenged. In all of the reports about Eunice’s passing not much was said about Rosemary.

I always thought she was a Down syndrome child. From my research, I learned that she had average intelligence, but she had learning disabilities and most likely suffered from mental illness. Her severe mood swings led her family to agree to have a lobotomy performed on her. This calmed her mood swings, but left her severely cognitively impaired for life. The well-meaning intentions of her family to have this surgery performed on their daughter (which blessedly is now no longer a part of medical practice), created additional problems. It was indeed one of the first tragedies of the Kennedy family.

This crisis in the family spurred Eunice Kennedy Shriver to begin the Special Olympics, which has grown into a worldwide venture. It gives dignity and purpose to people with many kinds of disabilities. Eunice also encouraged her brother, President Kennedy, to enact laws to improve the lot in life for people in institutions. These were some of the earliest beginnings of de-institutionalization in our country.

Of all of the disability communities I have worked with, there is none more misunderstood than the mental health community. In recent years, medical science has a larger array of medications and therapies to work with than in the past. Many people who had previously lived in locked units in mental institutions now reside in community homes with support systems, have meaningful employment and are integrated into society.

However, thousands and thousands of people with mental illness are not so lucky and slip through the cracks in the system. Many of them are the homeless who live on our streets.

Mental health services get far less funding than physical illnesses in this country. Many insurance programs have no provision for mental health, while others have limited coverage. Families who have family members with mental illness often suffer in silence with few resources for respite, financial support and a stigma that is like none other.

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Every church has people in it with mental health issues. Much of it is hidden due to fear of rejection and alienation. Sometimes the stranger with unusual behaviors that enters our doors is politely welcomed, but held at a distance by people who are afraid of them or feel uncomfortable associating with them.

I applaud churches that have special classes for people with intellectual and mental health challenges. I applaud churches that welcome people who come from group homes and give them a place in the family of the church where acceptance and compassion does more for a person than all the medication in the world.

Where can your church be reaching out? How can you educate your congregation about the attitudinal barriers that we often throw up when a person with mental challenges joins the church?

In all things, show the love of Christ to everyone. Seek support from community and health services as needed, and cover all of your ministries with prayer.

*Johnson leads the Philadelphia Area of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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