Wheaton magazine

Volume 22 // Issue 3
Wheaton magazine // Autumn 2019

All For God's Glory: Faith and Disability at Wheaton College

"We want to position our work so that Jesus is the center, and so that Wheaton becomes a place where we see the way disability is used to glorify God,” says Dr. Thomas Boehm, Ann Haskins assistant professor of special education. 

Dr. Thomas Boehm, Ann Haskins Assistant Professor of Special Education
photo by josh and alexa adams

Wheaton College hired Dr. Boehm to establish what is now the Ann Haskins Special Education Program, designed to prepare Wheaton’s education students to teach the estimated 6 million students with exceptional needs in the United States, and more around the world.

Dr. Boehm’s vision, however, encompasses so much more. 

Uniquely prepared with degrees in psychology, theology, and special education, and personally invested as the parent of a child with a disability, Dr. Boehm hopes to reframe the entire approach to disability at Wheaton, other schools, and churches through what he calls, “big-tent biblical disability discourse to empower disciple-making movements.”

The breadth of his vision is just beginning to unfold thanks to the kickoff of Wheaton’s Faith and Disability Initiative in March. Wheaton’s Provost Dr. Margaret DuPlissis Diddams ’83 explains, “We need to develop a thick theology of disability. Wheaton is positioned well to bring all of our resources to this. To offer support for families that is grounded in the Good News….We are not embracing the entire body of Christ when we marginalize those [with disabilities] who also desire to exercise their gifts for Christ’s kingdom.”

Wheaton has already taken one concrete step toward this larger vision. “We are in the process of officially changing our diversity statement to reflect our desire to focus more intently on including students who are differently abled,” says Dr. Sheila Caldwell, chief intercultural engagement officer.

The roots of Dr. Boehm’s vision stretch back 25 years, when individuals with severe disabilities changed the life trajectory of Dr. Erik Carter ’96, a man who would become Dr. Boehm’s mentor and friend.

“Like many people, I grew up in a world that functionally did not include people with disabilities,” explains Dr. Carter, now Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of special education at Vanderbilt University.

“As a college student, I stumbled into the lives of some people with intellectual disabilities for the first time,” he explains. “I was captivated by the friendships that were formed, and by the faith they shared with me. It was their faith, their love for Jesus, that threw me into deep faith.”

Dr. Carter came to Wheaton hoping to merge his newfound interests in faith and disability, but disability issues weren’t then part of the conversation, so he left Wheaton with a degree in Christian Education and a desire to help others who were missing out on opportunities to connect with all the members of Christ’s body.

This desire—which led Dr. Carter to write six books, pioneer research, and contribute to Vanderbilt’s inclusive higher education program for students who have intellectual disabilities—inspired Dr. Boehm, who became Dr. Carter’s coworker in research that will likely guide how the church welcomes people with disabilities for years to come.

“It is like God to unveil his glory through the witness of individuals with severe disabilities and to ignite a work to redeem and fill a void that was here,” notes Dr. Boehm.

Laying the Foundation

In March, Wheaton’s new Faith and Disability Initiative began with a public lecture titled, “Engaging Autism: Honoring God.” Dr. Grant Macaskill, Kirby Laing chair of New Testament exegesis at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, highlighted the clear, biblical foundations for valuing every member of the body of Christ, while also providing an overview of the history and current thinking about autism spectrum disorder.

Dr. Macaskill said, “God arranged the members of the body as he chose. He gives each member of the body to the other members of the body. Once they are appreciated first as a gift, their capacity to be able to give begins to emerge.”

This principle was beautifully illustrated the night of the lecture when Daniel Bovell, a young man with autism who said, “I have a disability, but I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” played several piano pieces.

Rev. Rick Bovell, Daniel’s father and a member of the newly formed Faith and Disability Advisory Council, a group of leaders committed to advancing the Initiative, said, “We have prayed since Daniel was tiny that God would use the gifts he has given him for his glory, so this event was an answer to that prayer.”

Next came a three-day Faith and Disability Symposium. More than 20 thought- and practitioner-leaders converged on campus to contribute and review abstracts for a special issue of the Journal of Disability & Religion (to be published this fall), to develop relationships, and to further one another’s research, practice, and scholarship.

Dr. Brian Brock, professor of moral and practical theology at King’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, and editor of the journal, said of the symposium, “Wheaton is one of the few places where evangelicals are asking these questions in a serious way, and the conversation in the group was as high here as anywhere else in North America.”

For Rev. Mark Stephenson, director of disability concerns for the 1,100 Christian Reformed Churches in North America, the symposium allowed time and space to “step back and think about the big picture, and to learn from those who are doing research and interviewing families so that we can bring all that back to our churches.”

For Dr. Tim Taylor, assistant professor of international relations, the symposium served as an introduction to issues surrounding faith and disability. He says, “When we talk about diversity, there is deafening silence with respect to disability. We need to train students, as future leaders in the church, to be serving people with a variety of abilities.”

Having worked at the intersection of disability and ministry since his college years, Dr. Jeff McNair ’78, professor of education at California Baptist University, believes, “What is desperately needed is the preparation of the Christian community to love their neighbors with disabilities—and that cuts across every discipline. My dream for Wheaton is that students would not be able to leave this campus without having an interaction with a person with a disability, and Lord willing, would leave with a friend with a disability.”

During the symposium, Dr. Boehm captured over half of these leaders on video, creating 30 mini-lectures, which he has made available to Wheaton faculty members across every discipline. With a desire to make this symposium an annual event, and through meetings with administrators and chairs of every department, Dr. Boehm hopes Wheaton will “embrace God’s heart for people with disabilities,” and that the College will then act, “equipping the church and engaging the world with inclusive schooling and ministries that will both expand and mature God’s family,” he says.

With the College still very much in the planning stages, Provost Diddams says of the future, “I want Wheaton College to be an innovation lab for the church. How can we be a campus that recognizes the needs of the whole body? Let’s posture ourselves to keep up with what the Lord is doing.”

Schools: Engaging the World

Born in 1948, Ann Haskins was a beloved daughter who lived a contented and helpful life, though the education system did not address her learning limitations. In Ann’s honor, her mother, Mary Haskins, endowed a Chair of Special Education at Wheaton.

“It’s really a miracle that this would occur,” says Mac Airhart ’61, who served on the board for the Haskins Foundation, knew Ann and Mary, and understood not only Mary’s frustration, but also her vision.

“After searching the country for schools that would help Ann reach her potential,” he says Mary was moved to help provide excellence in both teacher training and schooling opportunities for other children with disabilities.

With Dr. Boehm at the helm of Wheaton’s program since 2015, the first class of students to earn the special education (LBS1) endorsement graduated in 2017. Since then, 30 more students have joined the program, and every education major now benefits from required classes taught by Dr. Boehm.

“The highest teacher shortage in our country is for special education teachers,” he says, adding there are profound international needs for special education resources, and private Christian schools are also often sadly underresourced. While the greatest percentage of Wheaton’s teachers go on to teach general education classes in the public schools, most of these will have students with disabilities in their classes, and all will be better prepared to support the individual needs of every student.

Austin Chu ’18 came to Wheaton with an interest in special education and received the Ann Haskins Scholarship upon joining the second cohort. “The great thing about Wheaton is that you get plugged into schools right away,” he says. “This opened my eyes to a lot of the opportunities, and helped me see how general education and special education come together.”

Now a seventh grade special education teacher at Marquardt Middle School in Glendale Heights, Illinois, who also co-teaches in general education classes, Austin says, “Wheaton taught me to have a real, positive joy about being a special education teacher. It makes your job that much more fulfilling when you notice the improvements students make and the ways God is at work.”

Abby Lawson ’19 stepped out in faith and decided to take an extra year to complete her special education endorsement, receiving an Ann Haskins Scholarship in the process, and becoming the first music education major to join the program.

Thanks to two remarkable opportunities—one as a fulltime paraprofessional at the Marklund Day School for a summer, and the other as a volunteer at a Joni & Friends Family Retreat—Abby gained invaluable experience, which she hopes to use as a general education music teacher. She says, “I loved my experience as a music teacher at G. Stanley Hall Elementary in Glendale Heights. I saw all students in grades 1-5, including the students with disabilities, and I was able to incorporate what I had learned in my special education classes to differentiate the instruction.”

Churches: Strengthening the Witness

Dr. Boehm and Dr. Carter share a vision for inclusive faith communities, as well as a passion for research that provides insights for the church. Several telling studies point to the need for change. In a study of more than 400 parents, Dr. Carter and his colleagues found one-third had left their churches because their child with intellectual and developmental disabilities was not welcomed or included. More than half of parents (56 percent) said they kept their children from participating in religious activities because support was not provided.

Dr. Boehm then joined Dr. Carter in a series of studies examining both the supports in faith communities and the felt needs of families, in an effort to highlight where change is most needed. Out of this research came a guide for welcoming people with developmental disabilities and their families into congregations that can be found on Dr. Boehm’s Wheaton College webpage.

This is just the beginning of the resources Dr. Boehm hopes to provide. He hopes to answer questions like those of Dina Kapernekas, a member of the Faith and Disability Advisory Council, whose daughter Zoe was born with severe congenital hydrocephalus and requires one-on-one care 14 hours a day. Dina asks, “What might the church’s response be to families who have extraordinary burdens on a daily basis as a result of caring for individuals with disabilities?”

Dr. Boehm also hopes to enable the church to respond the way God the Father would to his children with diverse abilities. Chantal Huinink, coordinator of organizational and spiritual life at Christian Horizons, a service organization in Ontario, Canada, was born with cerebral palsy into a Christian home. “I grew up understanding God had a good and perfect plan for my life,” she says. Chantal, who was a manuscript reviewer for the symposium, shared a powerful message for the church.

Wheaton College Faith and Disability Iniative

Since she uses a wheelchair, the responsibility is often left to Chantal to figure out how she might be included. “In my teen years, I didn’t want to do much of anything, because I didn’t want to burden others. I just learned to excuse myself from events,” she says. Then her neighbor invited her to a new youth group with a youth pastor who had no experience, but simply said, “We’ll figure out a way.” She was 15 when he carried her in his arms onto the school bus so that she could join her friends.

Chantal now writes theological articles, helps implement family camps in Canada, and regularly speaks at schools and churches. She says, “I know the Christian witness is that much stronger when it surpasses societal wisdom. What does it mean not to do the minimum of what is required, but instead to do what we are called to do, which is to carry one another, whether we have disabilities or not?”

Like Dina and Chantal, Dr. Mimi Wohlschlegel Larson ’89, M.A. ’99, visiting assistant professor of Christian formation and ministry, raises important questions. She wonders what it might mean to have reciprocity—a willingness to give, receive, and minister alongside? “I hope we will be able to point to the beauty of what might be, and cast that vision for the church universal,” she says.

Pioneering Together

Ric Baptista celebrated his 60th birthday in April with a party at College Church in Wheaton, where he serves as an usher and takes part in the STARS ministry. Ric’s party came just two weeks after the kick-off of the Faith and Disability Initiative, an event made possible by the endowment given in his name that was orchestrated by his mother Martha Cole Baptista ’45, who served as assistant dean of students and coached women’s basketball. “This was my mother’s passion for the last year of her life,” explains Rob Baptista, Jr. ’70. At 93 years old, Martha met with Damon Winters ’09, regional director of development, who told her about Dr. Thomas Boehm’s work.

Laurel Baptista Pond ’74 met her husband, Jeff, thanks to Ric (center), pictured here celebrating his 60th birthday. Ric has worked at Spectrum Vocational and at Subway for over 20 years.

Motivated by Dr. Boehm’s vision, Martha spearheaded a giving campaign, writing letters to the wide circle of family and friends of her and her husband, Dr. Robert C. Baptista, Sr. ’44, who was vice president for academic affairs and men’s soccer coach. “A lot of soccer and basketball players lived with us over the years—and a lot of them contributed,” says Rob, adding, “She even told me how much I was going to give.”

Ahead of their time, the Baptistas had also led classes for children with disabilities, and taught a class for Wheaton students called “Recreation for the Disabled.” 

After collecting the responses, Martha then surprised Damon and Dr. Boehm, presenting them with stacks of letters. Damon says, “There were gifts from both coasts and a litany of people. Clearly, when she called, people answered with a ‘Yes, ma’am.’” Trusting that the giving would continue, Martha asked that Ric’s birthday, April 10th, serve as a reminder to give.