Joel Sonnenberg was badly burned in a car accident during his family vacation in 1979, at 22 months old. Even though 88% of his body was burned, by the grace of God, he was able to get surgeries, progress in school, and even provided multiple platforms in his life. Growing up as a child and still to this day, he encountered fear from others. Although, he feels very comfortable in his skin. 

When God started providing the platforms, Joel started speaking a lot around the country, even though he doesn’t much right now due to taking care of his family. During that time, he was convicted while watching the news. People were fighting for and against a disabled lady’s right to live. At that moment, he felt God was calling him to have an impact on people with disabilities. Soon after, Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, asked him to serve as a volunteer to lead the special needs ministry. Over time, he learned from many people, and he now serves as a pastor at the church in the area of special needs.

(To hear more about Joel’s story, check out the video at the bottom of this post.)

Joel explained the title of his NYWC 2019 workshop in this way: So often, when we encounter people with disabilities who have service dog, we find it much easier to go to the dog first. For many/most of us, we feel more comfortable going to the dog rather than the disabled person. It’s time to change that. We need to treat people better than dogs.

According to Joel, “There are no ‘special needs.’” We all have needs. Sometimes it’s harder for some people, but the needs are the same: love and acceptance.

Joel then shared several tips on bridging the gap to people with disabilities:

  • Look them in the eyes and treat them as an individual.
  • Smile and show them affirmation (even blind people can hear a smile).
  • Be aware of your body language and what it is conveying.
  • Be respectful for who they are as an individual. The most important thing in their life is not their disability.
    • It’s okay to ask people about their disability, but pros ask only when it is pertinent and ask it well.
    • When working with kids with disabilities, ask about their school rather than going straight to their disability.
    • Be aware of disrespectful language. Preferred language is first-person, as in putting the person before the disability. Use their name first. (Jimmy, who is also in a wheelchair, is by the front door.)
  • Do not make assumptions about someone with a disability. 
  • Make sure you are creative in solving particular issues or problems that might arise.
    • Every individual and every disability is different.
    • When you have one disability, you often have multiple disabilities.
    • Follow Jesus’ example and words by treating the one like they are the one.
  • Relax and be okay with failure and making adjustments.

If you have questions about working with people with disabilities, I’d encourage you to reach out to Joel [Facebook | LinkedIn]. He is a wealth of information and wisdom.

You can also watch this video of Joel’s story below:


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