Europe's biggest 'hidden people group'?

September 30, 2002

Thérèse sat across the table from me in the coffee corner at Heidebeek. Right here among us in Europe, she explained, lived a largely ignored people group with a population roughly equal to that of Germany. This people group, she said, was the poorest, least educated and least evangelized in Europe.

Most Christians, leaders included, she said, know little about this group and seem to have little time for them. As a member of this people group, she was speaking from experience. The few Christians among them, she said, often found themselves a minority among a minority among a minority.

The people group she was referring to were disabled Europeans. About ten per cent of the population have a disability of some sort, she explained, physical or mental. Disabilities can be internal – not a sickness – and include impaired sight and hearing.

Through no fault of their own, disabled people have found themselves having to live in a body with abnormal limitations. As Th√©r√®se spoke, I thought of Jonathan McRostie. I knew him as very active leader with Operation Mobilization, whose driver fell asleep behind the wheel returning home from an OM conference. That moment changed Jonathan’s life forever and confined him to a wheelchair.

Today Jonathan and Th√©r√®se are both active in the European Disabilities Network (EDN), a Hope for Europe network connecting those ministering across the continent to this ‘hidden people group’. [contact person: Eugene Johnston, eugene@yucom.be]

Joni Eareckson, perhaps the best-known advocate for the disabled, was still a teenager when she was paralysed after a diving accident. A few years ago, I was master of ceremonies at a conference Joni sponsored for disabled Europeans in Budapest. I was greatly humbled watching Joni encourage the 400 participants from her wheel chair to receive grace to live “one day at a time”. Joni and I discovered we were born within a week of each other. Somehow that made me stop and reflect on how different life would have been had it been me, and not Joni, who had been paralysed.

Bringing the gospel to disabled Europeans is a special challenge. The learning disabled, for examply, feel humiliated when addressed as children, explained Thérèse.

For many with such disabilities, attendance and involvement in regular church events is very difficult, if not impossible. That’s especially true for the deaf and mentally disabled. Few churches exist primarily for the deaf. Exceptions can be found in Bucharest (Romania), and in Holland (the Deaf Christian Fellowship). In Budapest there is a training school for the deaf. Leaders needed to think about practical issues like low door thresholds for wheelchairs, good lighting for the sight-impaired and even websites accessible for the blind, pleaded Th√©r√®se.

Websites for the blind?! That was a new one for me. Th√©r√®se explained that pictures on webpages should have clear descriptions in words, which can be read on computerised bars instead of screens, which electronically activate braille letters for the ‘reader’ to read.

While life with a disability is challenging enough for those in western Europe, conditions tend to be worse in the former communist countries where little attention was ever given to those seen as ‘misfits’ in the socialist utopia.

Yet one of the greatest challenges was blindness among Christians to the sensitivities of the disabled, added Th√©r√®se reluctantly. “Imagine how we disabled feel when we hear able-bodied people complaining about their bodies not being perfect!”

Let’s stop right there, and let these words ring in our ears.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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