By Melissa Schill

This week, the Ann Haskins Special Education Program at Wheaton College, an endowed program within the education department, launched The Faith and Disability Initiative. The initiative is a “disability discourse to empower disciple-making movements.” In a country where almost 20 percent of the population has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, founder and Wheaton Professor of Special Education Thomas Boehm sees a pertinent need for increased exposure to and engagement with the disabled community.

The initiative’s overarching goal is twofold. First, “engaging the world through inclusive schooling and Biblical faith for the expanding of God’s family.” Second, “equipping the Church for inclusive ministry and schooling for the maturing of God’s family.” Whether at physical churches, Christian schools or Wheaton College, the initiative aims to provide support and resources that promote and enable engagement with disabled people in the community.

“It is the initiative’s function and mandate to collaboratively work institutionally,” Boehm said. The idea of founding an initiative like this came to Boehm while he was pursuing his doctorate in Special Education at Vanderbilt. After he was hired to teach at Wheaton in 2015, Boehm began working more seriously to make it happen.

The Faith and Disability Advisory Council was formed to serve as decentralized leadership for the initiative. The group will meet twice a year. It will include two Wheaton alumni who teach special education as well as three parents of individuals with disabilities. Over the next three years, Boehm hopes to grow the council to 15 members.

Through the council, Boehm hopes to make engagement with the disabled community easier. “I want to figure out how to serve, equip and empower existing infrastructure. I want to resource them,” Boehm said.

To launch the initiative, a private symposium was held March 27-29 for leaders working in fields involving faith and disability, including theologians, academics and practitioners.

The symposium provided materials that might equip attendees to better support disabled individuals. For example, 30 seven-minute lectures were filmed by the attendees. The lectures offer insight about the relevance of engaging the disabled community as well as practical means of doing so within specific fields of work. Boehm hopes to make the lectures accessible to faculty so that they can be used to educate students in a wide variety of disciplines.

Wheaton College currently offers an LBS1 Endorsement for education students through the Ann Haskins Special Education Program. Students in this program take 18 credit hours to get the endorsement which equips future educators with resources and strategies to serve all students.

Freshman Kiersten Anton decided to pursue her LBS1 Endorsement after being in class with special education students during high school. As an education major, she hopes to teach in a mixed classroom — a classroom in which disabled students and non-disabled students are taught together. “I am an advocate for mixed classrooms,” Anton said. “There is so much to learn from [individuals with disabilities].”

Freshman Audrey Irwin, another education major pursuing an LBS1 Endorsement, said that many schools and churches are making strides to a more mixed approach, “but there is still a lot of work to be done … It is so important for believers to engage with the special needs community because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and have so many incredible gifts,” Irwin said in an email exchange with the Record.

The Faith and Disability Initiative will serve to engage more students like Anton and Irwin in opportunities to work with disabled members of the local, national and international community.

“Wheaton invests a lot of time and energy and resources into building off ramps so students can go off campus to have all kinds of experiences … Any and every one of those experiences ought to have an opportunity where students can engage with individuals with disabilities,” Boehm said. “We should be cultivating partners where those kinds of experiences are normative.”

Alongside promoting social engagement for students, the initiative will also host informational engagement opportunities. “Engaging Autism — Honoring God,” a lecture by Dr. Grant Macaskill, Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and Director of the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community, was held on March 26. It featured a piano performance from Judson student Daniel Bovell, an individual with autism, as well as a temporary art installment from the students at Clare Woods Academy, an organization committed to helping youth and adults with disabilities.

This event will be held annually to ensure that conversation on campus concerning engagement with individuals with disabilities continues.