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Between 1625 and 1900 there is virtually no known written record of Anabaptist or Mennonite response to people with disabilities. Therefore, we can only speculate, based on theological understandings, what attitudes and practices may have been prevalent.

Mennonites have always believed that life should be lived so as to reflect one's faith in Christ. This has typically meant serving those in need and showing love to one another through deeds of helpfulness and assistance in the practical affairs of life. The Dordrecht Confession of Faith of 1632 sets forth provisions for caring for the poor, feeble, sick, and needy of the church. This may have included people with disabilities who, according to prevailing attitudes, were probably viewed as children of innocence and people needing assistance.

Evidence from the late 19th and 20th century indicates that most people with disabilities in Mennonite communities have been cared for at home by their families. The concept of caring for one's own runs especially deep among Amish, Hutterites, and the more conservative Mennonites. Until recently, it would appear, there was little actual involvement or assistance from local congregations.

In Amish communities differences in ability and intellect are seen as gifts from God. Those deficient in certain abilities are accepted as part of the family and community. Children with disabilities are sent to school because socialization is valued and adults are encouraged to perform useful tasks.

The earliest recorded work with deaf persons by Mennonites occurred in 1885 in South Russia where Mennonite churches opened and supported a boarding school for deaf children.

The first known community-wide response by Mennonites to people with mental retardation and mental illness occurred in 1910 with the establishment of the Bethania hospital. During its 16-year history this facility in the Chortitza settlement in southern Russia served 991 people of whom more than 50 percent were not Mennonites.

Mennonite immigrants fleeing Russia in the 1920s brought this concern and service model with them to Canada. In 1932 Bethesda was opened in Vineland, Ontario -- the first Mennonite institution in North America to serve people with mental retardation and mental illness. Later this facility served exclusively people with developmental disabilities. In 1999 Bethesda Home was operated by the Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference.

This concern for people with mental retardation and mental illness was carried by other Mennonite immigrants to the Paraguayan Chaco where Hoffnungsheim was established in 1945. This institution was located just outside Filadelfia and served the three Mennonite colonies of Menno, Fernheim, and Neuland. Hoffnungsheim has gained in expertise and provided leadership to Paraguay in the development of other disability and mental health services serving the general population.

Following World War II European Mennonites responded to the needs of children by opening orphanages. As this need diminished, French Mennonites were challenged to convert some of these homes to the care of persons with mental retardation. in 1951 this new mission was begun at Montdes-Oiseaux (Vogelsberg), near Wissembourg in Alsace. Since that time, with the support of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Board of Missions, (MC) French Mennonites have developed other residential and sheltered workshop services across France from Wissembourg to Hautefeuille to Paris. These pioneering services to people with developmental disabilities have become models for all such service development in France.

In North America it was 25 years after Bethesda opened before any other similar services were initiated by Mennonites. The first was Adriel School of West Liberty, Ohio, which in 1957 became a residential and educational institution for mentally retarded children and later emotionally disturbed slow learners. It had been established in 1896 as West Liberty Orphans Home. Adriel School was operated by the Mennonite Board of Missions until the mid-1980s, when responsibility was transferred to local Mennonite congregations.

In the United States work with deaf people began in the 1950s in several Mennonite churches in Pennsylvania. Scottdale Mennonite Church and First Deaf Mennonite Church of Lancaster offered fellowship and interpreted worship services. The only congregation for deaf persons in Canada in 1999 was the Deaf Community Christian Church in Burnaby, B.C. It began worship services in 1983 and formally organized as a Mennonite Brethren congregation in 1994.

Deaf Ministries, as an arm of Mennonite Board of Missions, was established in 1976 to provide consultation and advocacy to deaf people, families, and churches. Long-term goals in working with deaf people and churches include creating access to all congregational services, training for leadership, and fostering respect for deaf culture and language. Signing, a quarterly newsletter, is published by Deaf Ministries. Eli Savanick, Reuben Savanick, Pam Dintaman-Gingrich and Sheila Stopher Yoder have served as directors.

Developmental disabilities, which are defined as permanent substantial handicaps originating before age 18 and including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, or neurological impairment, have received increasing attention from Mennonites in recent years. In 1963 Mennonite Mental Health Services, an agency of Mennonite Central Committee, established a Mental Retardation Study Committee under the leadership of John R. Mumaw. This committee sought to determine what services should be developed by the church and worked to gain greater acceptance for people with disabilities. It was not until 10 years later that Mennonite Mental Health Services established Developmental Disability Services (then known as Mental Retardation Services) and employed a full-time staff person. Jack Fransen, Nancy Kerr Williams, Dean Preheim-Bartel, and Alonna Gautsche have served in this capacity.

Developmental Disability Services provides consultation and resources to families, churches, conferences, and Mennonite-related disability programs. This ministry also facilitates and assists in the development of new services and resource material and published a quarterly newsletter, Dialogue on Disabilities.

With the growing public awareness of the needs of people with disabilities in the 1970s, North American Mennonites through church conferences, local congregations, and Mennonite Central Committee initiated numerous direct service disability organizations. Most active in development were the Mennonite Church (MC), Beachy Amish Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites and the General Conference Mennonite Church. By the mid-1980s there were as many as 10 annual retreats for families with a developmentally disabled member and at least 5 organized church sponsored parent support groups. In 1987 there are nearly 40 church-related Mennonite agencies providing residential, vocational, advocacy, and other support services to people with developmental disabilities in North America. Most of those being served are non-Mennonites.

Mennonite Central Committee Canada created the Handicap Concerns Program under the leadership of Henry Enns in 1980. The purpose of this program was to sensitize the church constituency to the needs and potential of people with physical disabilities and to identify ways that the church could contribute towards their integration. The Handicap Concerns Program initiated the first Independent Living Centers in Canada. These are based on the philosophy of self-help, self-determination, community building, and the involvement of people with disabilities. in 1986 the national staff position was replaced with a representative committee which, together with provincial committees, continues to carry out the original purpose.

Some Mennonite churches are using the gifts of people with disabilities in such areas as ushering, music, teaching, worship leading, and pastoring. Many churches are making their buildings accessible for persons in wheelchairs. Congregations are discovering ways to support people with disabilities and to encourage and assist their families who have special needs. Caring for Mennonites and others with disabilities has become a congregational concern.

A list of Mennonite-related developmental disabilities facilities and organizations as of 1987 follows:

  • Adriel School, West Liberty, Ohio;
  • Casselman Valley Disabilities Support Group, Grantsville, MD;
  • Central California Mennonite Residential Services, Fresno, CA;
  • Christian Residential Opportunities and Social Services, Chambersburg, PA;
  • Cumberland Valley Parent Support Group for the Handicapped, Chambersburg, PA;
  • Deaf Ministries, Mennonite Board of Missions, Elkhart, IN;
  • East Coast MCC Developmental Disability Concerns Group, Akron, PA;
  • Faith Mission Home, Mission Home, VA;
  • Franconia Conference Support Group;
  • Friendship Community Lititz, PA;
  • Friendship Community Support Fellowship, Lititz, PA;
  • Friendship Foundation for the Handicapped, Glendale, AZ;
  • Glencroft Special Services, Glendale, AZ;
  • Hartville Meadows, Hartville, Ohio;
  • Hattie Larlham Foundation, Mantua, Ohio;
  • Indian Creek Foundation, Harleysville, PA;
  • Jubilee Association of Maryland, Silver Spring, MD;
  • Kansas Mennonite Disabilities Council/Central States MCC, North Newton, KS;
  • Kings View Work Experience Center, Atwater, CA;
  • Mennonite Association of Disability Programs, Mennonite Health Association, Elkhart, IN;
  • Mennonite Developmental Disability Services of MCC US, Akron, PA;
  • Mennonite Disabilities Committee, Goshen, IN;
  • Mennonite Family Support Group, Lewis County, NY;
  • Mennonite Residential Homes, Elida, Ohio;
  • Northview Development Services, Newton, KS;
  • Oregon Mennonite Residential Services, Lebanon, OR;
  • Pleasant View Home, Broadway, VA;
  • Salem Children's Home, Flanagan, IL;
  • Shenandoah Parents Support Group, Harrisonburg, VA;
  • Southwest Community Services, Tinley Park, IL;
  • Sunnyhaven Children's Home, Plain City, Ohio;
  • Sunshine Children's Home, Maumee, Ohio;
  • West Coast MCC Developmental Disability Program, Reedley, CA;
  • Handicap Concerns Committee of MCC Canada, Winnipeg;
  • Peace and Social Concerns Committee of MCC Alberta, Calgary;
  • Clearbrook Achievement Centre, Clearbrook, BC;
  • Community Living Program, Abbotsford, BC;
  • Dahlstrom House, Abbotsford, BC;
  • Langley House, Langley, BC;
  • Supportive Care Services, MCC British Columbia, Abbotsford, BC;
  • The Cedars, Rosedale, BC;
  • Twin Firs, Huntingdon, BC;
  • Twin Firs Greenhouse, Huntingdon, BC;
  • Vabich House, Abbotsford, BC;
  • Association of Community Living, Altona, MB;
  • Eden Mental Health Service-Trainex Industries, Winkler, MB;
  • El'Dad Ranch, Randolph, MB;
  • Handicap Concerns Committee of MCC Manitoba, Winnipeg;
  • Kindale Manor, Steinbach, MB;
  • Kindale Occupational Centre, Steinbach, MB;
  • Occupational Training Centre, Altona, MB;
  • Our Home, Winkler, MB;
  • Valley Rehabilitation Centre, Winkler, MB;
  • Opal Inc., Petitcodiac, New Brunswick, Canada);
  • Aldaview Residential Services, New Hamburg, ON;
  • Bethesda Community Assessment Services, Vineland, ON;
  • Bethesda Home for Mentally Handicapped, Vineland, ON;
  • Handicap Ministries of MCC Ontario, Kitchener, ON;
  • Independent Living Centre, Kitchener;
  • St. Catharines Peer Support Group, St. Catharines, ON;
  • Waterloo Regional Peer Support Group, Kitchener;
  • Disability Concerns Committee of MCC Saskatchewan, Saskatoon;
  • McKerracher House, Swift Current, SK;
  • Menno Home of Saskatchewan, Waldheim, SK;
  • Mont-des-Oiseaux, Wissembourg, France;
  • Les Amis de l'Atelier, France;
  • Domaine Emanuel, France;
  • New Dawn Development Center, Taiwan;
  • Servido Menonita de Salud Mental, Filadelfia, Chaco, Paraguay.


"Claggett Statement " in Signing (Oct. 1984).

Glick, Ferne Pellman and Donald R Pellman. Breaking Silence -- a Family Grows With Deafness. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982.

Grossman, Herbert J., ed., Classification in Mental Retardation. Washington, D.C.: American Association on Mental Retardation, 1983.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press,1980: 322-24.

Kingsley, Mitchell and Duane Ruth-Heffelbower. After We're Gone: Estate and Life Planning for a Disabled Person's Family. Akron, Pa.: MCC, 1987.

Lind, Miriam S. No Crying He Makes. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972.

Melton, James A. "Old Order Amish Awareness and Understanding of Mental Retardation." PhD diss., Ohio State U., 1970.

Neufeld, Vernon H., ed., If We Can Love. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1984.

Neufeldt, Aldred J., ed., Celebrating Differences. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1984.

Perske, Robert. Hope for the Families. Nashville: Abingdon, 1981.

Preheim-Bartel, Dean A. and Aldred H. Neufeldt. Supportive Care in the Congregation. Akron, Pa.: MCC, 1986.

Yoder, Edward. Mennonites and Their Heritage, no. 3. Akron, Pa.: MCC, 1942.

Additional Information

Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region

Indian Creek Foundation (Harleysville, Pa.)

Mennonite Central Committee (sections on mental health and disabilities)

First Deaf Mennonite Church (Lancaster, Pa.)

The following Mennonite offices serve as clearing houses for material on disabilities: Developmental Disability Services, 21 South 12th Street, Akron, PA, 17501; Deaf Ministries, 500 South Main, Elkhart, IN, 46516; Handicap Concerns Program, 134 Plaza Drive, Winnipeg, MB, R3T 5K9.

Author(s) Dean A Preheim-Bartel
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Preheim-Bartel, Dean A. "Disabilities." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 15 Jul 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Disabilities&oldid=116273.

APA style

Preheim-Bartel, Dean A. (1989). Disabilities. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 July 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Disabilities&oldid=116273.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 234-236. All rights reserved.

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