Church congregations have a unique opportunity to help people with disabilities find jobs that allow them to be full participants in their communities.
That’s the message Dr. Erik Carter, a Vanderbilt University researcher and special education professor, shared with ministers, deacons, and elders from Classis Georgetown (a regional group of churches in West Michigan). Carter, who became a Christian as a college student through the witness of two cognitively impaired friends, has served as a consultant with several churches to help link people with disabilities to job opportunities they hear about from members of local congregations.
“The church is filled with people who, in addition to being part of a Christian community that gathers to worship, for the rest of the week are connected to businesses all throughout the community,” Carter said. “They’re connected to more diverse businesses than any service system would know how to access.”
Carter said unemployment rates among the disabled are much higher than for the general population, even with the help of government-based programs. “We need other ways to connect people to jobs that don’t rely entirely on the public service system,” he said.
Carter suggested that churches who have an interest in this area develop teams including business owners and special education teachers. He pointed to examples in which church members interviewed job seekers with special needs and helped them develop resumes based on their natural strengths as well as volunteer experiences such as helping in Sunday school. He also recommended starting small by working with one or two people at a time.
“[People with disabilities] want to take their gifts and talents and find places to share them with others, including in the workplace,” Carter said.
Gerry Koning, pastor of Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Jenison, Mich., knows firsthand the challenges of trying to help people with physical and mental challenges find employment. His 27-year-old daughter, Leslie, has severe multiple impairments, and his 22-year-old son, Jesse, has Down syndrome. Koning has set up small businesses for the two of them to use their talents to help provide for themselves. For Leslie, it’s bagging bird seed and selling it at local farmers’ markets, while Jesse has a cleaning business.
“We like to think of jobs as something that gives joy and meaning—something that makes them thrive and fits with their personality,” Koning said.