According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are over 1 billion people—roughly 15% of the world’s population—who are disabled. In many cultures, people who experience physical challenges are often marginalized and rejected. This issue is so significant that in 1992 the United Nations (UN) adopted December 3rd as International Day of Disabled Persons, an annual event dedicated to promoting awareness of, and equal rights for, those with some form of limitation.
The Seventh-day Adventist church shares this concern. In 2011 a committee was formed under the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries department to address the concerns and needs of this special group. This led to the development of Special Needs Ministries, an umbrella ministry that initially served the hearing and visually impaired.
Larry Evans, assistant to the president for Special Needs Ministries, is passionate to see churches incorporate special needs ministry into their yearly outreach strategies. “I believe this is a prophetic ministry,” Evans says as he points to a favorite quote from Ellen G. White’s writings. “I saw that it is in the providence of God that widows and orphans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and persons afflicted in a variety of ways, have been placed in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character. Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love, and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character” (Christian Service, p.191).
Special Needs Ministries functions to assist leaders from the local church level up to the General Conference in providing resources, education, encouragement and inspiration. In fact, one of the major priorities of the ministry is “to encourage church leaders worldwide to intentionally meet the needs of individuals with special needs and include them in all aspects of church life. Leaders are advised to develop programs for witnessing to people with special needs and to make facilities—and the gospel – accessible to all.”[i] To assist in reaching this goal, each of the World Church’s 13 divisions has a coordinator responsible for special needs and hearing-impaired ministries.
To promote inclusion of those differently-abled, as Evans prefers to call those with special needs, the Church has developed multiple resources. One such resource is adventistdeaf.org, an international website that networks hearing-impaired individuals to foster a sense of community and mission, provides devotional and other religious materials and lists church locations that are either operated by the deaf or provide interpretation.
Another resource is Hope Channel Deaf, an internet channel whose programming is close-captioned and interpreted into five different sign languages: English, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese.
Christian Record Services, one of the flagship outreaches to the visually-impaired, continues its tireless efforts to produce materials in Braille, including Sabbath School materials, Bible study guides and inspirational magazines.
The Church also sets aside one Sabbath a year as Special Needs Awareness Sabbath to promote mindfulness of and provide opportunities for ministry to those with special needs.
“Special Needs Ministries begins and ends with a new identity—we are one in Christ. Awareness, acceptance, training and ministry are all part of Total Member Involvement, and Special Needs Ministries will be working to help this happen,”[ii]Evans shares.
Special Needs Ministries has recently expanded to embrace those with physical, mental and emotional health issues, orphans and caregivers of those with health issues. You may find more information and resources on their website: specialneeds.adventist.org.