Part 5: When a Missionary Candidate Has a Disability

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It’s tempting for a mission just to refuse someone who has a mental or physical disability. But consider, should the Church be sending the message that we don’t value persons with disabilities? Also, there may well be legal problems with this approach.

Broadly, in the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act covers persons with disabilities, and other countries have similar laws. In the U.S., there is a ministerial exception for persons who serve a ministerial role, which prevents their employment from being scrutinized by the courts for almost any reason. You will want to have those persons clearly defined (with legal help).

Normally, prospective employers do not ask about disabilities. Disabilities could be revealed in a medical examination (which must be done consistently across the board, and with genuine job requirements in view). They could be revealed when the employee or candidate opens an interactive discussion.

Once the employer knows about the disability, there may be an obligation to have an interactive discussion with the employee about possible accommodations. This is definitely the case if the employee has directly asked about accommodations. Accommodations are designed to let the employee fulfill the basic job requirements.

If the job requirements cannot be fulfilled even with accommodations, then there is no obligation to keep the employee on or hire the candidate.

For instance, if a certain job requires the ability to hike 20 miles into the rain forest, and an employee has a significant heart condition, he cannot do that portion of the job. Would it be a reasonable accommodation to fly in? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on what is available, and whether it is a hardship for the mission.

What if the person has a mental disability, such as bipolar disorder? It might be negligent to send the person to an area of the world where there is no appropriate medical or psychiatric care. Is there another field that would be more workable? Perhaps so, depending on the staffing needs of the mission. The mission is not obligated to create a special job. Would it be a reasonable accommodation to have the person give permission for the team leader to know and provide accountability for her to stay on medication? Perhaps so, depending on her health history, if the person could potential endanger herself and others on the team.

These are complex issues that are best worked through with legal counsel. But keep these steps in mind.

  1. Define all the job requirements for each field and home placement, including physical and emotional.
  2. Don’t seek information about disabilities inappropriately.
  3. If you learn of a disability, have an interactive discussion with the person and consider if there are possible accommodations.
  4. Document all steps carefully.


Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations