Disability ministry seeks community engagement

John Brown University’s newly-created Disability Awareness ministry begins this spring semester by encouraging conversations about stigma, disabilities and support within the student body and community,

The Disability Awareness ministry focuses on increasing conversations, engagement and awareness. Ministry leaders Savannah Crittendon, junior business management major, and Jessica Oldenettel, freshman communication major, seek to form partnerships with local nonprofits that work with individuals with disabilities, including Ability Tree, the Elizabeth Richardson Center and 99 Balloons.

Crittendon started her work-study position at Ability Tree when she moved to Siloam Springs in 2017. She was also a student in the Gateway course on disability, which encouraged students to volunteer at Ability Tree. “Ability Tree is a non-profit that partners with families impacted by disability … They do that through afterschool programs and Parent’s Night Out, which is Friday nights,” Crittendon said.

Oldenettel, who took the disability Gateway in 2018 and also volunteered with Ability Tree, fell in love with the work and the children. “On Parent’s Night Out, it’s like four hours, from 5:30 to 9:30. You have an MVP, which is one of the kids or siblings depending on the night, that you’re paired with for the night … You spend the night hanging out with them, doing whatever they want,” Oldenettel said. “Afterschool is 3:30 to 5:30, Monday through Thursday. It’s an afterschool care program where the kids come and hangout until their parents pick them up … They get to hang out and play.”

Crittendon served as the Gateway Mentor for the disability gateway in 2018. Jacob Stratman, an associate professor of English who taught the course, encouraged Crittendon to start the ministry. “I wanted to do this for a while, and had been thinking about it, but had never taken the initiative. Dr. Stratman signed me up for it. He said, ‘This is something that you really need to do,’” Crittendon said. “I just did not really want to do it by myself because that’s a lot of commitment, so Jessica and I started talking about it. This semester we’re partnering with Ability Tree … because we’re already connected.”

Crittendon and Oldenettel want to increase awareness on JBU’s campus by inviting chapel speakers who have disabilities and creating discussion during ministry meetings. “Our meetings are going to be every other week and we’re going to talk about stigma, what is normal, what are disabilities, so that the members of the group can start talking about it and bring awareness to the campus through that,” Oldenettel said. “Logan is one of the frequent kids at Ability Tree and his dad and mom are both professors here: Dr. and Dr. Himes. We’re hoping that we can potentially get one or both of them to speak in chapel, or Joe Butler, who is the founder of Ability Tree.”

“We’re starting it at JBU, on campus, but we’re wanting to not only include JBU students but include the community because we’re not just wanting to raise awareness for the x-amount of students we have on campus,” Oldenettel said. “We want to raise awareness in general and that includes the Siloam Springs community or whatever we may come in contact with in our lives.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, established in 1990, “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life” according to Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. The recency of this act is a motivation for the ministry. “Even disability awareness is something that is still new. The ways that we talk about people with disabilities are changing because we’re learning the way that you need to do that. Stigma is becoming a new thing because we’re starting to realize all the stigmas that we’ve placed on people are not actually true,” Crittendon said.

“I have epilepsy and so this is really important to me, but it’s also important because I kind of forget I have epilepsy, so this becomes the focus of creating awareness for other people,” Crittendon said. “It’s so important to get people’s voices who have disabilities and what they want because it’s not just us speaking up for other people, it’s giving other people with disabilities a voice.”

For Cause Serve Day on Jan. 27, the Disability Awareness ministry will meet in the Walker Student Center at 9:30 a.m. to travel to Ability Tree to help with cleaning and organizing. Crittendon and Oldenettel invite all interested students to attend.