Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Disabilities and Possibilties

Twenty-eight years ago, I got a taste of what discrimination feels like.  I’d just graduated from Harvard Divinity School, was newly ordained, and hoped that some church might want to call a promising young man like me to be their minister.

But I was also coping with what doctors call end-stage kidney disease.  For reasons unknown, my organs were in irreversible failure.  And I felt that I needed to be honest with hiring committees.

I had interviews with several.  I told them that within a year or two I would be on dialysis and that, unless I were able to obtain a kidney transplant, I would be tethered to a machine three times a week for hours at a stretch.

At that point, most search committees thanked me and mentally ruled me out.  Who wanted an invalid as their pastor? 

Fortunately, one congregation took a chance on me, the First Unitarian Church in Seattle, Washington.  One member of the search committee there was Cathy Covert, one of the brightest, most competent and compassionate people you might ever want to meet, but who also used a wheelchair after experiencing adult onset polio.  Having direct experience with a disabled individual, I think, enabled folks on that committee to look past my health issues and consider me as a whole person—with multiple gifts and many skills rather than a single limiting condition.

As it turned out, I was on dialysis less than three months after the church hired me.  But I continued to work and the entire congregation was wonderfully supportive that initial year, until I received a kidney transplant that restored me to good health. 

For me, it was the beginning of a long, productive career—that might have turned out very differently had no one offered me a break.

I share this personal information on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Long ago, strangers were willing to look beyond my diagnosis and give me a chance at employment.  Today, we can celebrate that more and more churches, businesses and non-profits are doing the same, and America is better for it.  Because treating people fairly is not just the right thing to do, or the caring thing.  It’s also the law.