Putting Faith to Work: Helping People with Disabilities Find Meaningful Employment

December 7, 2016 | Bill Gaventa

Each faith community or congregation is a collection of people, at once similar and diverse. One of the strengths of these communities is their capacity to respond to people in need, especially individuals they know. If you are part of a faith community, you may already have experienced the amazing things that can happen when an individual need is brought to the attention of a group of caring people.

A congregation’s greatest riches may be its social capital, the collection of people it brings together who are community members, employers, employees, club members, volunteers for other organizations, customers, neighbors. The list goes on and on.

Consider the possibilities of bringing these capacities together to help people with disabilities find employment. If a congregation knows someone, especially a member, such as a young person with a disability approaching transition out of school into adult life, or someone with an acquired disability like a wounded veteran returning from war, there is a strong possibility they’ll be willing to gather around that person and their family if asked or called, often because many people might already want to help, but don’t know how.

What if that gathering looked like a mission team, or a circle of support, and their vision was to get to know the individual, his or her gifts and support needs, and then help them find a job or another significant way to contribute to their community? That process of contribution could first start with finding ways for them to do something in the congregation to contribute to its life, and to give them a chance to be givers as well as receivers, to lead as well as to follow.

But then, what if that team saw their whole congregation as a source of networking and contacts so when the team had a good idea of an individual’s strengths and dreams, they could turn to the whole congregation to help them look for opportunities? That’s the way most of us get jobs. Perhaps not through a faith community, but through contacts, networks, and connections.

Imagine if employers in the congregation set aside a portion of their workforce to help ensure people with abilities often unseen and disregarded because of labels of difference, got an opportunity to demonstrate those abilities. These employers could really do something about the vast disparity in employment rates between people with disabilities and those without while helping to transform individual lives and improve the morale and productivity of their businesses.

That’s just what a number of faith communities have begun doing through Putting Faith to Work. Through this three-year project funded by the Kessler Foundation and coordinated by the Kennedy Center in Nashville, congregations in four states have tapped their capacity to create a circle of care around individuals with disabilities along with the connections of their membership to help people with disabilities find jobs. And it has worked…not always, nor always easily, but the same is true for any new form of ministry and any other kind of employment initiative. Other congregations have done this outside of the context of the Putting Faith to Work project. A manual and website with strategies and resources are available for congregations of all faith traditions to customize and use.

Talk to people with disabilities in your congregation, or families with young adults with disabilities facing the adult world. Take what others have done through Putting Faith to Work and create your own paths. There may be no more profound way to support people with disabilities than to help them find their own abilities, and put them to use in service to God, their faith community, and the community in which they live.


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Bill Gaventa, M.Div., is the Director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability and was a consultant to the Putting Faith to Work project. Contact: Bill.gaventa@gmail.com

Improving Police Interactions with People with Disabilities

July 22, 2016 | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

On July 18, the White House convened a forum on disability and criminal justice reform. Ronald Hampton, Advisory Board Member, National Association for Police Accountability, was a panelist at the event. A retired Metro DC Police Officer with more than 20 years on the force, Mr. Hampton is the father of an adult son with autism. He shared his concern for his son interacting with police given the possibility for misunderstanding in such situations. He and other parents of children with autism in the metro DC area have developed a support system and phone network so they can call each other when assistance is needed rather than calling police.

That same day in North Miami, Florida, police shot Charles Kinsey in the leg as he was attempting to assist a man with autism who had wandered from his group home. Kinsey, a behavioral therapist at the group home, located the man with autism who was sitting in the street playing with a toy truck. In a cell phone video of the incident, Kinsey can be heard trying to calm the man with autism while telling police he was holding a toy truck not a gun. The Washington Post reported that a police union representative indicated “the officer was aiming for the man with autism—apparently thinking he was armed—and was trying to protect Kinsey.”

Earlier this year, the Ruderman Family Foundation released a report noting that individuals with disabilities comprise one-third to one-half of all people killed by law enforcement officers and are “the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated.” The report faults the media for ignoring the disability component in these stories or telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.

According to the report, “When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence. Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge.”

One of these solutions is the use of Crisis Intervention Teams in law enforcement. States and localities that have employed these teams have seen fewer injuries and deaths among officers and people with psychiatric or intellectual and developmental disabilities, increased jail diversion rates, fewer lawsuits following crisis incidents, and stronger ties with mental health and disability communities.

In addition, appointing police liaison officers and deploying specialized police officers and non-police officers, including police chaplains trained in crisis intervention techniques improves police responses in situations involving psychiatric and other disabilities through the delivery of specialized knowledge, skills, and experience. And better training of police officers to understand intellectual and developmental disabilities and psychiatric disabilities improves interactions between police and individuals with disabilities in crisis situations.

Most important, however, is ensuring that people with disabilities receive the community services they need and preventing these law enforcement encounters from happening in the first place.  We must stop using our law enforcement system as a substitute for a failing disability service system.  The rates of justice involvement among people with disabilities reflect in large part the failure to offer people services such as supportive housing, employment services, and mobile crisis services. Providing these services to more individuals who need them would enable us to avoid many preventable deaths of individuals with disabilities during encounters with law enforcement, avoid spending costly sums on incarcerating individuals with disabilities in jails and prisons where they are poorly served, and prevent arrests and convictions that follow individuals for the rest of their lives, making it substantially more difficult for them to obtain housing and employment and reintegrate successfully into community life.

Faith communities can support these efforts by advocating for improved training of police officers that serve their communities and by reaching out to parents of children with disabilities to better understand their circumstances and how to be a part of their network of support. Contact the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the National Council on Independent Living, and other organizations serving the disability community for additional resources and points of connection. Working together we can improve interactions between law enforcement and people with disabilities, to the overall benefit of both officers and citizens alike.

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Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is the Director of Interfaith Engagement for the American Association of People with Disabilities. 

Living Fully 2016…and Beyond

July 7, 2016 | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

Living Fully 2016, a groundbreaking international conference on disability, culture, and faith, took place June 24-26 in Rome, Italy. Sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and The Kairos Forum, I had the honor of participating as a delegate on behalf of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS).

Attended by over 150 delegates of all abilities, a common theme throughout the conference was the need for churches to become communities of belonging as well as the ways churches continue to struggle to include people with disabilities in their worship, service, and educational opportunities. This insight and aspiration is not limited to the challenges and opportunities facing congregations in the Christian tradition, but can be broadly applied to congregations across faith traditions.

The conference included an address by the Right Reverend Paul Hendricks, an Auxiliary Bishop for the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, England. Bishop Paul noted that the encounter, discussions, and community experienced by delegates over the three days had been a joyful and enlightening time and stressed the need to stop assuming and start listening in order to better understand the perspectives of those seeking inclusion. He further emphasized the importance of friendship and cited Pope Francis’ recent comments that the Church is for “everybody or nobody.”

Members and friends of AAPD’s Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition were well represented at the conference, including Jan Benton, Executive Director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability; Bill Gaventa, Director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability; and Mary Chute O’Meara, Executive Director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries, Archdiocese of Washington.

Cristina Gangemi, Director of Living Fully 2016 and Director of The Kairos Forum, closed the conference with a call to action addressed to all to continue to work tirelessly towards faith communities of belonging for people of all abilities.

A more in-depth review of the 2016 Living Fully Conference is available courtesy of Rome Reports.


Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is the Director of Interfaith Engagement for the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The Need for Disability Inclusion in Criminal Justice Reform

July 5, 2016 | Alexa Maltby

At the Prayer Vigil for Sentencing Reform, Craig Deroche of the Prison Fellowship said, “every person in there is created in the image of God and deserves our support”. I believe, every person, regardless of their crime, is created in the image of God. I believe every person deserves a fighting chance to have a fair and just sentence. Every person that goes to trial is granted a jury of their peers to make judgments on their individual case.

Unfortunately, this is not what is happening today, especially for those with psychiatric disabilities. Mr. Leo Marino, an accomplished woodworker, was imprisoned at Bridgewater State Hospital.  This is a prison that is supposed to provide a therapeutic, healing space that is run by the Department of Corrections instead of the Department of Mental Health.  Mr. Marino was a victim of the lack of mental health treatment in the American prison system.  During his last week of life, Mr. Marino was placed in the Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), which was in direct contradiction with his clinical needs because of his previous suicide attempts.  He was under direct supervision of five guards, including one that was specially trained.  Despite the amount of supervision, the officer managed to disregard clinician instructions and patient history.  Before his last stay in ITU, Mr. Marino made two previous suicide attempts by ingesting excess toilet paper.  Mr. Marino obtained a significant amount of toilet paper from an officer without the use being monitored, and successfully ingested it completing his suicide.  In a place that is underfunded and understaffed for the patients they have, Mr. Marino had no place being in this facility.  “This tragically unnecessary death further illustrates why individuals such as Mr. Marino should receive mental health services in a psychiatric hospital and not a prison” said Christine M. Griffin of the Disability Law Center and Chair of the AAPD Board of Directors.

Prisons have a shocking amount of people with disabilities serving time, and these tragedies are far too common. Currently, 32% of federal prisoners and 40% of people in jail have at least one disability according to the US Department of Justice. Today there are roughly 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars. Prisons are the largest mental health providers in the United States, even though they are not designed or equipped for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities. For inmates that are blind or deaf, solitary confinement is the “accommodation” most prisons choose to give, which can lead to or complicate psychiatric disorders. The LA county prison system is the largest site of mental health services in the country. As of February, 29% of the LA County prison system was made up of people with a psychiatric disability according to the LA Times. Officers are not properly trained to handle people with a psychiatric disability.

This is a complex issue that I do not have the answer to.  Instead of giving grand prison sentences, using programs like Stepping Up to create awareness of the larger than life problem that is mental health in our prisons is a better solution. Stepping Up is a national initiative to reduce the number of people with psychiatric disabilities in jails. Programs like the Exodus Foundation aim to keep people out of prison.  The Exodus Foundation offers 24-hour adult re-entry mentoring through the Red Sea Crossings and Scholarship.  The foundation uses one-on-one therapeutic friendship and support groups to create a community for people coming out of jail or prison.  Community programs are the best way to provide support to those being released from prison. That support system is vital to prevent recidivism. Programs can offer treatments and resources so that nobody has to worry about being re-incarcerated.

Without support, two thirds of offenders will end up back in prison. Sebastian Goodsen, formerly incarcerated, said “I was prey for the prison industrial complex”. His town took away all programs that kept him off the street until he was 16 years old. There were no more after school programs, arts programs were closed, and nothing was left but the streets. Many people have nowhere to turn because their resources are stripped away. It costs around $30,000 to send someone to prison, but only costs around $6,500 to mentor someone and keep them out of prison. That is saving $23,500 a year and having better results.  This is not a solution being offered, but it is a step in the right direction.  The current system is not working, so let us invest in a system that can.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center (RAC) spoke about T’Shuvah and the importance of repairing, repentance, and redemption. T’Shuvah is considering and accepting our misdeeds and actively trying to right our wrongs. Our prison system is flawed and in order to change it, T’Shuvah is necessary. We need to recognize that sending someone to prison can be prevented. We need to accept that the prison system in America is flawed, and we need a way to right the wrongs we have done with it. All those created in the image of God deserve a fighting chance through treatment and prevention programs.

The vigil was the beginning to a day of lobbying for S.2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which will allow every person to be an individual in their sentencing. The focus is on low level crimes, rather than serious drug or violent offenses. The vigil was hosted on June 15 by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Council of Churches, the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, and MomsRising on the Northeast quadrant of the Capitol Grounds. Representatives from all different faiths came out to support this effort.


Alexa Maltby is a summer intern with AAPD’s Interfaith Initiative through the Machon Kaplan Summer Internship Program hosted by the Religious Action Center.

People of Faith Encourage Candidates to Address Disability Concerns

April 11, 2016 | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, Director of Interfaith Engagement, AAPD

On February 23rd the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), along with the Texas Disability Project, Disability Rights Texas, and other disability advocacy groups launched the national REV UP America — Make the DISABILITY VOTE Count campaign.

REV UP stands for Register, Educate, Vote, Use, (your) Power. The REV UP campaign is promoting the growing influence of the disability vote nationwide while working to ensure access to the polls on Election Day for Americans with disabilities.

The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition, a program of AAPD, is mobilizing people of faith to sign a letter encouraging candidates to address disability concerns in their campaigns. The letter notes that Americans with disabilities “make remarkable and valuable contributions to our communities,” yet, “continue to face discrimination in many areas including employment, transportation, and education.” The letter encourages candidates for public office to address these disparities and set forth a “vision to encourage the civil rights of people with disabilities, and to promote their full inclusion in society.”

Faith communities have long encouraged their members to engage in responsible citizenship, including voting, and many serve as polling places on Election Day. Through its involvement in the REV UP Campaign, IDAC seeks to build on these efforts by encouraging candidates for public office to make a greater effort to engage the concerns of the disability community. It is our hope that in doing so, the American experiment of self-government increasingly includes and reflects the voices, concerns, and wisdom of people with disabilities.

Read the full letter and add your name!

29 Religious Organizations Support Expanded Medicaid Services in States

August 1, 2012 | Ginny Thornburgh

Today, August 1, 2012, the religious community sent letters encouraging the nation’s Governors and State Legislators to support participation in the expanded Medicaid program authorized by the Affordable Care Act. Twenty-nine religious organization signed on to the letters which were drafted by the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC). This program will provide many persons with disabilities, who have incomes near the poverty level, with the health and long term care services they need to live independent, productive lives in their communities.

Although the religious organizations which signed on differ in theology and practice, their core spiritual values affirm the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. Let’s hope the elected leaders of our states understand that providing programs so that people with disabilities can live independent and productive lives is a moral issue as well as a good government issue.

Here is a copy of the letter which went to Governors and State Legislators:

We, the undersigned members of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) and other religious and religiously-affiliated organizations, urge you to support participation of your State in the expanded Medicaid program authorized by Public Law 111-148, the Affordable Care Act. This program will provide many persons with disabilities, who have incomes near the poverty level, with the health and long term care services they need to live independent, productive lives in their communities.

IDAC is a nonpartisan coalition of more than 25 national faith-based organizations including representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions, with a mission of mobilizing the religious community to speak out and take action on disability policy issues. IDAC is a diverse coalition of organizations whose core spiritual values affirm the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.

The shared values of our faiths lead us to support programs such as Medicaid, which now gives more than 8 million people with disabilities the dignity and independence they need to continue contributing to their communities and congregations.

Medicaid supports essential health and long term care services that provide a vital lifeline for people with disabilities. To cite a few examples:

• For people with a variety of physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, or amputations, Medicaid provides access to wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, and assistive technology.
• For people with epilepsy, mental illness, HIV, and a variety of other conditions, Medicaid is often the only source of access to essential prescription drug coverage.
• For many people with cognitive and other disabilities, Medicaid is an important source of long-term services and supports, which are tools to live and work in the community and to avoid costly, segregated nursing homes and institutions.
• For children with disabilities, Medicaid provides access to the Early and Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment benefit, which requires screening for, and treatment of developmental, vision, dental, mental health, and other medical problems.

The Affordable Care Act extended Medicaid to approximately 17 million persons with incomes below 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, $11,170 a year for a single person. Many of the new enrollees are people with disabilities. We know that millions of people with disabilities, and those who love them, now live with the misery of inadequate care and the fear of an unknown future. The expansion of Medicaid offers an opportunity to close gaps in access to health care and bring 17 million more Americans into a system of care that can provide positive outcomes in health and quality of life.

Under the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Affordable Care Act, each State must decide whether to participate in an expanded Medicaid program. We urge all States to do so.

The Affordable Care Act provides that most of the expense of expanding the Medicaid program will be borne by the federal government; 100% in the first three years, scaling down to 90% after six years. We recognize the challenges faced by public officials in making budgetary decisions. We hope that strong federal support for the Medicaid expansion will be an incentive for all States to participate and be able to provide health and long term care services to some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Without the Medicaid expansion, many people with disabilities will remain uninsured and rely on emergency rooms and other services, which ultimately will lead to higher health care and insurance costs for others.

Medicaid already provides vital support to more than 8 million persons with disabilities, making it possible for them to contribute to their communities and congregations. We urge you to support participation of your State in the expansion of Medicaid, an important step in strengthening our nation’s capacity for leaving no person behind in achieving the promise of American opportunity.

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