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Published: Saturday, 4/27/2013

Ability for all: Advocating for people with disabilities through faith and art

Dan Wilkins, Public Relations director of the Ability Center, speaks during an in-service training at Riverview Industries in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The Ability Center is hosting a day-long workshop May 1 for faith leaders. Dan Wilkins, Public Relations director of the Ability Center, speaks during an in-service training at Riverview Industries in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The Ability Center is hosting a day-long workshop May 1 for faith leaders.

Dan Wilkins lives a story of faith and ability. In his work, he shares the challenges that people who have disabilities face and he helps to make the world a place where all can be included.

“If you can tell a story that changes the way people look at you and think about you, then you’re on to making a difference in the world,” he said.

Mr. Wilkins is the public relations director of the Ability Center, which is in Sylvania and is one of the sponsors for the 2013 Accessible Communities Education Series.

On Wednesday at Parkway Place in Maumee, the free series will present author Mark Pinsky, who will speak to Toledo-area faith leaders and share stories about accessibility and being welcoming. Mr. Pinsky is the author of the recently published book Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion, published by Alban. He has written other books about popular culture and religion, including The Gospel According to The Simpsons, and is the former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel.

Amazing Gifts has “great anecdotal stories of people who found faith through their disability, very much like I did,” Mr. Wilkins, 55, said. He identifies as a United Methodist, but he also said, “I just see God in everything. I’m going back to Jesus’ words, ‘I am the alpha and the omega.’ That’s pretty much everything.

“When I broke my neck, I was 23, 10-foot-tall, bulletproof,” Mr. Wilkins said. “You know, nothing could happen. [The accident] woke me up. I was raised by my mom and dad, Methodist and churchgoing, love all people, respect all people. So I grew up supporting civil rights and women’s rights and, later on, gay and lesbian rights, but none of them touched me personally until I rolled my Camaro.

“Suddenly, I had to come in back doors and I was having to drink out of different drinking fountains and [using] different bathrooms. For me, it wasn’t the front of the bus or the back of the bus, I couldn’t get on the damn bus. I think I became a better human being because of what I’ve been through; I know what it is to be oppressed and I don’t like it. As a white man growing up in America, I never knew oppression, so to suddenly understand, that’s a place where, when I talk to people, it’s a place I can connect with them.”

In his connections, Mr. Wilkins works with his words and his art to advocate for people with disabilities. Mr. Pinsky’s stories tell what people go through. “This is a book that you can hand to the pastor or hand to the worship committee,” he said. “The hope is that they say, ‘We could do that.’”

Mr. Wilkins said that at the Ability Center, “We have been asked for years by people of various faiths and congregations [who say], ‘We want to do something. We’ve got this old church, what can we do? Where can we get money to build a ramp? All these questions. We can’t really help them with the money to build a ramp, but if we can come in and talk to them about the best way to do it, and is there a more economical way of doing it, well, let’s look at that. Getting people to recognize that when they have a sign out in front of their church that says ‘all are welcome’ and it’s right in front of all the stairs, you know, what are you really saying here?

“When you bring people together, when you provide that welcoming space where everyone feels like they’re not second class or they’re not an afterthought then you have an opportunity for them to shine and to give back, and to be a part of [the community],” he said.

The population of churchgoers who have disabilities is growing. He said he sees three streams of people—those injured in war, people born with serious conditions who, with medical advances, now live into adulthood, and baby boomers “aging into infirmity”—all converging at the steps of sanctuaries.

“Seeing this wave coming, there’s a great need,” Mr. Wilkins said. “Anytime you’re turning somebody away, whether you’re doing it consciously or not, you’re turning people away that might come and fill your pews and listen to your message.”

“A Day with Author and Columnist Mark Pinsky,” sponsored by the Ability Center, Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the Toledo/Lucas County Commission on Disabilities, and State Support Team—Region 1, is Wednesday at Parkway Place, 2592 Parkway Plaza, in Maumee. There is no charge, and lunch is included. Mr. Pinsky’s presentation is at 9 a.m., lunch is at 11:30, and there is a panel discussion at 1 p.m. Register by noon Monday at, by emailing, or by calling 419-885-5733.

Contact TK Barger at:, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.

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