LRE: How would you describe your disability?

JB: I have not always had a disability. When I was twelve I began noticing pain in my wrists and that I had a low-grade fever. I was always very active so the paint seemed strange. I went to the doctor and his diagnosis was that I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It has progressively gotten worse over the past 53 years.

LRE: Is the word “disability” offensive to you?

JB: Not at all! I prefer it over “handicapped.” I often refer to myself as a person with a disability. Notice I use the word “person” first to make the point that first of all I’m a person. What kind of person? I am a person who happens to have a disability.

The church that is educated looks at everyone’s talents—including mine. In other words, as a person with a disability, God has given me abilities too. Right?"


LRE: Many today refer to individuals like you as a disabled person.

JB: That’s right and sometimes just a disability. In other words, someone might call me “an arthritis.” I’m not “an arthritis.” I’m a person who has arthritis. See the difference?

LRE: Yes, however, some are offended if they are called disabled.

JB: Let me explain that, if I may. Think about the word “disability.” The reason that it’s OK is that dis-ability means there’s something wrong with the ability. It does not mean that you have no ability. It means there’s an impairment of some kind to one or more of your abilities. For me to say I’m not disabled is silly. I do not walk and walking is an ability. In that context I have a “dis-ability” when it comes to walking and running. However, I still have a lot of ability. I’m not useless. I have many abilities, but I just don’t walk. See the difference? For me the word “handicapped” is different. It’s a whole different ballgame. For example. If I come to your church and there are a lot of steps to get into the door, and there’s no ramp, then I have just been handicapped by my environment. So I have become a handicapped person because I use a wheelchair and I can’t get in there. I’m not as a person handicapped; the situation has handicapped me.

LRE: Do you find a challenge in the church? What can we do better?

JB: Oh, all the time. First of all, the church needs to design and build with all people in mind. For example, if I come to your church, have you planned on me using a wheelchair? Will I be able to use your bathroom? Would I be able to come onto the platform if you were to invite me to have opening prayer during the worship service?

We also need to teach the church to think inclusively. The church isn’t always educated to do that. The church that is educated looks at everyone’s talents—including mine. In other words, as a person with a disability, God has given me abilities too. Right? So if the church is doing this, it will look at me and say, “What are Joan Bova’s abilities? How can she use those talents and abilities to further the cause of the God?” If we are going to be a church that speaks to all people, we’ve got to be inclusive of all people. Keep in mind that disability means everything—any kind of mental or physical impairment of any kind.

LRE: What actions by others have been most helpful to you?

JB: First of all, it is helpful when individuals are open to learning more. When a person understands disabilities, they look at it in the broad view and are open to learning even more. They allow those with disabilities to teach them. The quality that is the most needed is honesty. Don’t be afraid to talk about my disability—I already know about it.

LRE: Attitudes are important then?

JB: Yes, and attitude goes both ways. The non-disabled and the disabled person both have an attitude. A disabled person may come to church with a bad attitude and say, “Why didn’t you plan for me?” On the other hand, someone with a good attitude might say, “They must not have planned for me because they don’t know; therefore, I have the responsibility to educate them.”

LRE: It has been said, “God’s power always shows up best in brokenness.” Do you feel you are a better person because of your juvenile rheumatoid arthritis?

“God’s power always shows up best in brokenness."

It’s true. I’m a much better person. My body is broken. My body was not meant to have arthritis but because it does, I have the opportunity to learn and share more. Think about it. I am able now to empathize with others because I hurt. If I cannot walk, which I can’t, and you for some reason had an accident, I am able to understand your pain better. I’m able now to serve others, help them more by being more understanding. I believe, I really believe, that I have an advantage of leading you to Jesus if I can first understand your challenges. I’m called to serve disabled people. I’ve always known that. And how could I have served them if I wasn’t one of them? My disability is most definitely a blessing.

LRE: What counsel would you give those struggling with their own disability?

JB: I would say to them first of all, give it time. Time changes everything. Give yourself the opportunity to grieve. Everyone has to go through the grieving process, and that takes time. There is no time limit on that. Anyone who sustains a great loss, like losing an ability, is going to grieve. You have to give that some time. I would tell that person that with time you will learn to do things differently. At first it’s like, “Oh no! What’s happened to me?” But later on it’s like, “No big deal.” Eventually the disability becomes your new norm.

LRE: What suggestions do you have for a local church or pastor?

JB: I would direct the attention to two areas: First of all, I’d say, “Look at your physical structure, your physical accessibility.” For example, can I get in your door with a wheelchair? If I’m blind, can I figure out how to get around? If I’m deaf, is there a sign language interpreter? A ramp might be needed for accessibility. Look first at your physical structure. Then after that, look at the attitudinal barriers.

“Look at your physical structure, your physical accessibility."

LRE: What does disability ministries have to do with stewardship?

JB: Stewardship means responsibility, right? We’re all called to be stewards of what we have. That means I must be a good steward of you and you of me. I just happen to be one of those disabled people but that does not excuse my responsibility. The Lord expects the same of me as He does of you. There can be no “Oh, poor me” excuses. No, I must learn how to do things in spite of my limitations. At the same time we must remember that in God’s eyes I’m not limited. In God’s eyes, He’s given me gifts and abilities too. So God says to me, “Use what I’ve given you and share it with others.” That’s what it’s all about.

When anyone takes on the name of Christ, they become God’s people. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter whether they walk or talk or hear or see; that’s irrelevant. The point is: Those who have accepted Jesus Christ, who take on the name of Christian, are to live by His principles. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we believe we are to share the gospel with everyone. Isn’t that exciting!

Joan Bova interviewed by Larry R. Evans, Editor of Dynamic Steward. Photos by Ron Quick.
Joan Bova is the former Disabilities Ministries Coordinator for the Southern Union Conference, as well as for the North American Division. Joan has had a physical disability since childhood. She resides in North Carolina, USA, with her husband, Phil, and is currently retired.