Lisa Kuhn writes:

i am a 57 year old woman who has a number of chronic disabilities. this is very isolating for me as i am pretty much bed-bound. i have faith in god which helps of course, but i do not really have any family so this makes things much harder. i used to be very active and was a high school english and foreign language teacher.

as i know how hard these groups work, i wonder how they relate to people who are unable to work due to illness,plus how they relate to the disabled/ill from a spiritual point of view.

Lisa, first of all, thoughts and prayers for you and for strength in your situation.   You ask  a good question; I’ll take a crack at it.

amish workingAs you rightly recognize, work is an important element of life as an Amish person.  Not being able to contribute due to an injury or onset of disability can be a severe personal setback.

Amish say that they aren’t supposed to be proud, but I think we can safely say that in some sense Amish “take pride” in the tangible results of their work.  Work provides satisfaction and fosters physical and mental health.  For the Amish male, typically head of household and primary breadwinner, the psychological effects of not being able to work due to disability can be heavy.

For people who are severely impaired, home care is an option.  Amish may rotate caring for a family member with a disability.  Though Amish generally prefer to care for their own, in some cases institutional care may be given.

Less severe cases are handled differently.  I know and have met a number of Amish people with disabilities, some of whom are confined to wheelchairs.  You do what you can. Depending on the level of disability, this may mean anything from operating a business to complete immobility.

For my Amish business book I interviewed at least a couple of individuals who run small but successful businesses while having disabilities, one with a severe impairment that limits his ability to walk.  These people radiate warmth when you meet them.  I don’t know what they are like in private but I have to think their positive attitudes and sense of gratitude give them strength.

For some, disability means taking on basic tasks that can provide a living and boost a sense of self- worth.  A couple of examples immediately came to mind.  One is the Care-n-Share business in Apple Creek, Ohio, which sells baskets and other items crafted by physically challenged Amish people–individuals “with spinabifida, cerebral palsy, Parkinsons or some other physical restriction,” notes the website.

handmade broomsA second is an individual who recently passed away known as “Blind” Syl Hershberger.  As his nickname tells us he lacked the ability to see, but was able to make a living creating handmade brooms in a small workshop adjacent to his Ohio home.

I recently had a chance to visit the shop and view the tools he’d used to do his job.  I imagined him working away, steadily cranking out the simple but sturdy brooms that I could see all around me (and couldn’t help but wonder how I’d manage in his shoes).

God’s plan

Spiritually speaking, Amish feel that disability is part of God’s plan, and that a person in that situation should be seen as a blessing and not a burden.  As humans Amish people may need to remind themselves of that sometimes too.  The authors of The Amish Way quote an Amish mother: “Speaking of her son with Down syndrome, one mother says, “We don’t believe that the reason he is like he is, is because of something we did or didn’t do.  Ben is exactly in accordance with God’s plan” (p. 167).

They also note that people with disabilities are

an ever-present reminder to those with whom they live to slow down or modify routines and expectations,  and to include those with different abilities in the tasks of everyday life…the belief that God places special children with specific families for a purpose fosters remarkable inclusion.  Amish-published directories of those with disabilities typically list an occupation–from store clerk to “help around the house”–alongside each person’s name, no matter how severe the person’s limitations.  This underscores the conviction that everyone has something to contribute (p. 168).

It should also be said that not every Amish person is exceptionally hard-working, and this is a trait you can see across some communities as well.  And things like mental illness, which are not as easily explainable, may not be as readily accepted as a physical disability (though a number of mental health institutions for Amish and Mennonite people do good work in this area).

Lisa adds:

incidentally, i would be grateful to have an occasional correspondence, by email or snail mail, with a mennonite or amish woman or family sympathetic to my situation. i read that these people do not have much time to write, but as i don’t have much energy to write, that might work out well! also, is there a tradition of communal praying for the sick? thank you.

Amish will pray for the ill in these situations.  Communal prayer is very important in Amish society but Amish will also pray individually or in family devotions time, often at the beginning or end of the day.

Thanks for your question Lisa, and I’m hoping you will find someone that would like to correspond with you.  Anyone with info is welcome to pass it on to me at ewesner (at) gmail (dot) com which I can then forward to Lisa.

I’m also wondering if anyone else has examples of dealing with disability among Amish–or elsewhere, for that matter?

Broom photo credit: Bryan Costin/flickr