I was born with spastic, quadriplegic, Cerebral Palsy in 1983. I have benefited significantly from the use of a power wheelchair since the age of two, and other adaptive technology such as electronic reading devices and voice recognition software. In spite of my mobility challenges and significant visual impairment, I have completed a degree in psychology and I am almost finished my Masters of Divinity and Social Work. Accessible transit systems, structural modifications such as curb cuts and automatic doors, and accessibility legislation in Ontario, Canada, contribute to my positive quality of life, helping me to be gainfully employed, as well as very involved in my church and community.
Recently, in partnership with Bethel Ministries International and Hope Haven Ministries, I traveled to Guatemala to serve at a camp for Guatemalan youth with disabilities. The holistic nature of the camp included spiritual teaching, leisure activities, medical care and training, and large healthy meals. Thanks to the prevalence of other service organizations, there may be less of a need for North American faith-based programs to address medical care and meals. We would do well, though, to consider people’s holistic needs rather than attempting to compartmentalize spiritual components.
There were crafts, relay races and other sports and games using minimal equipment and household supplies. Rather than refraining from various “inaccessible activities,” in Guatemala, everyone found a way to participate. I realized that some North Americans with disabilities may be quicker to assume that modifications are necessary for high quality of life. Conversely, I think the Guatemalan expectation of participation and an emphasis on community collaboration made many people with severe challenges more capable than one might expect.
I road on a Four Wheeler and went horseback riding for the first time in approximately 25 years. Given my needs, even with accessible riding programs in Canada, such activities are prohibited for me. Horseback riding became possible in Guatemala because my Guatemalan friends were willing to do whatever it took to make it happen and they had faith that it would work out. I sensed the Lord’s protection against various risks and I had a great time! One person supporting my back and one person on either side of me with two more people to hoist me on and off the horse made it a safe and fun community building adventure.
From my perspective, there are many ways in which Guatemala is more accessible than Canada or the United States. People are not preoccupied with liabilities and they do not retreat from obstacles, rather they find a way to make the experience happen – no matter how many extra people or innovations are required! Similarly, faith communities may enrich the lives of North Americans with disabilities if we focus on trusting God more and supporting each other rather than protecting ourselves. We can find ways to address obstacles together rather than retreat from them.
In Guatemala, a very small percentage of people with disabilities have a power wheelchair. They cannot rely on curb cuts or automatic doors, and accessible education is not guaranteed. It was surprising, then, that I felt freer to do the things I wanted to do, For example, the cost of a modified van, trained drivers, and insurance prevent me from owning my own vehicle in Canada, but while in Guatemala, being unencumbered by regulations and legislation, I had the use of an accessible van. It was not modified extensively. It was simply equipped with floor straps and a portable ramp. My safety was not guaranteed by policies and procedures but rather the meticulous efforts of the hosts with whom I was traveling.
Yet when policies and procedures are implemented merely out of compliance, they forget the heart of the matter. Accessibility is a heart issue first.
Sharing mobility devices and medical supplies are critically important to the quality of life of persons with disabilities around the world. However, Guatemalans with disabilities are generally more concerned with function and resourcefulness, rather than having state-of-the-art equipment. Guatemalan individuals and families who benefit from mobility devices, accessible housing, camps, education and employment offered by Bethel Ministries International tend to be especially expressive of their gratitude to God and the people that He equips to bless them. They have a sense of humility and appreciation seldom seen in North America, as observed in their delight with power wheelchairs and other mobility devices that are outdated according to North American standards. As a result of their heart attitude on accessibility, resources can be stretched further to benefit many more people in their communities.
To find out more about the amazing work of Bethel Ministries International and different ways that you can partner with them or other ministries that support people with disabilities in Guatemala and around the world, please visit Bethel Ministries International, Hope Haven Guatemala and Christian Horizons Global.