Loving the Least of These: How Do We Treat the Disabled Among Us?

Opinion   |   Eric Metaxas   |   Mar 14, 2014   |   5:33PM   |   Washington, DC

Recent revelations about the abuse of disabled workers has me thinking: Do we fear God? I’ll explain.

Last May, an Iowa jury awarded $240 million—later reduced to $6 million—to 32 mentally-disabled men who, over the course of three decades, were systematically cheated, exploited and abused by their employer.

disabled2It’s a sad reminder of how vulnerable those with disabilities are and why any church worthy of the name should be at the forefront in protecting them.

The story is, as the New York Times put it, “Dickensian” in its details. Over three decades, hundreds of intellectually-disabled men were shipped from Texas to Atalissa, Iowa, to work for Henry’s Turkey Service, which then sold their labor to turkey processing plants.

The men “were housed in a 100-year-old Atalissa school building the company converted to a bunkhouse.” As the Times told readers, “their supervisors never received specialized training [in working with the intellectually-disabled]; never tapped into Iowa’s social service system; [and] never gave the men the choices in life granted by decades of advancement in disability civil rights.”

And that was before the issue of pay comes up.

Under federal law, these workers did not have to be paid the same as the non-disabled co-workers.

Instead, they were paid a percentage based on their productivity.

Even that reduced amount seldom reached their pockets. The company “deducted hundreds of dollars from the men’s earnings and Social Security benefits for room and board—and ‘in-kind’ services, like bowling, dining out and annual visits to an amusement park.”

No matter how many hours they worked, they never got more than $65 a month.

Then there was the physical abuse including handcuffing and being forced to walk in circles while carrying weights.

“Dickensian,” indeed. All that was missing was a foreman named Wackford Squeers.

This exploitation and abuse continued unimpeded for three decades until Henry’s Turkey Service and the processing plant decided that the men had slowed to the point where, even at $65 a month, it was no longer profitable to employ them.

After a social worker discovered and documented the abuses in 2009, a suit was filed against Henry’s Turkey Service by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which resulted in the record award I mentioned earlier. Nearly a year after the verdict, only about $30-to-40 thousand of the award has been collected.

The day my colleague, whose son is intellectually-disabled, read the Times article, the Old Testament reading was from Leviticus 19.

In it, God tells the people of Israel, “You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the LORD.” Thus, how we treat the disabled is a measure of whether we fear God—the Hebrew word for fear meaning revere, honor, and stand in awe of.

Reading the piece brought to mind Christian alternatives like L’Arche where “people with and without disabilities share their lives in communities of faith and friendship.” As L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, said “we are brothers and sisters, and Jesus is calling us from the pyramid to become a body.”

While desperately needed, even the best laws and most-dedicated enforcers cannot make people see the intellectually-disabled as their brothers and sisters. As the Bible tells us, Christians have no choice in the matter. The question, as Vanier put it, is “Does the church really believe in the holiness of people with disabilities?”

Only if we truly believe in the holiness of God, in whose image they are made.

LifeNews Note:  Eric Metaxas is best known for two biographies: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery about William Wilberforce. He also wrote books and videos for VeggieTales.