No barriers between us

Enabling people of all (dis)abilities to take part in the community of faith

By Nancy J. Patrick

When my brother was two years of age, he contracted measles. The disease’s high fevers caused minimal brain dysfunction, resulting in severe hyperactivity and other learning disabilities.

Despite these difficulties, he entered school like most children—with wide eyes of anticipation and a great joy for learning. In his first school photo, he grinned from ear to ear with happiness.

Over the next few years, these yearly snapshots told the story of the toll that life was taking on him. His smile sank, and his bright eyes grew weary. School was a hard and sad place for him.

So was the neighborhood. I was still a child myself when I first began defending my little brother from the taunts and bullying of neighborhood children.

Believing the Church to be the community of all who trust Jesus as Savior and follow Him as Lord, I expected that this would be a place of full acceptance and inclusion for all people, including those with disability. Unfortunately, this has not been the case; individuals with disability are often no more accepted or included in our churches than they are in schools or neighborhoods. Yet I remain hopeful that, with education, training, and the work of the Holy Spirit, this can change.

Uncovering the disparities

In 2000, a report from the U.S. National Organization on Disability found that approximately 84 percent of people with disabilities state their religious faith is important in their lives. But only 47 percent of those attend church at least once a month.

This disparity can be explained by a variety of means, including barriers on the part of the individuals themselves. However, congregational barriers—architectural, programmatic, communication, and attitudinal—have undoubtedly also contributed to it.

Individuals with disability are often no more accepted or included in our churches than they are in schools or neighborhoods.

In order to challenge this trend, there are steps that we, as church leaders and members, need to take. By identifying and removing the barriers that limit access to people with disability, our church communities can better reflect the entire population, instead of a disproportionate number of temporarily able-bodied and able-minded.

Examining our attitudinal barriers

In a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ginny Thornburgh, director of the American Association of People with Disabilities’ Interfaith Initiative, noted, “Of all the barriers to full participation and inclusion, the barrier of unexamined attitudes is the most difficult to address.”

I would tend to agree with her, since our thoughts and feelings about disability are often deeply imbedded within our minds by culture. It takes time and effort to discover what we think, and even more time and effort to change. And so, I offer these considerations as a starting point for us today:

Make every effort to acknowledge that every human being can experience a decrease in health and thereby experience some degree of disability. Disability is not something that only happens to a minority of humanity; it is a universal human experience. Our encounter with disability might be traumatic and life-changing—such as a dementia diagnosis or a car accident that leaves us permanently physically disabled—or it might be temporary—something that a cast or pair of glasses can fix. Either way, if we live long enough, every one of us will experience disability in one way or another.

Recognize that an individual’s functioning and disability occurs in a context. For instance, an individual with limited sight may have an advantage over a sighted person when needing to evacuate a dark building that is on fire, while the same person may have very limited opportunity to participate in a Bible study if materials are not enlarged or provided in Braille. The strengths and needs of an individual with a disability must be addressed in context.

Appreciate the function of brokenness in the life of all believers. People often want to relieve the perceived suffering of a person with disability through healing or a cure, although one may not be possible. It is important for the Church to appreciate the place of brokenness in the life of all believers, as permitted by God, whose strength is made perfect in our weakness and who uses our limitations to demonstrate His grace, mercy, and power.

Expect individuals with disability to seek and connect with God. A Core Value of the Brethren in Christ is “Experiencing God’s love and grace.” It only makes sense that along with this, we should have an attitude of expectancy—that all types of people would respond to the invitation to the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, followed by a desire to enter into a covenant relationship with other believers. Individuals with disability are as capable of responding to God’s love and His invitation to salvation as any other person. The depth of the experience and relationship will differ, as it does with all people.

Refrain from thinking of individuals with disability as always being on the receiving end of ministry. While some assistance may be required, this should not be the overwhelming focus of the body related to those with disability. Upon conversion, the Holy Spirit grants to all believers the spiritual gifts necessary to carry out the work of the Church. When believers with disability are excluded from opportunities to exercise their spiritual gifts, that work is incomplete.

Defining disability

The concept of “disability” is complex, and its definition varies based upon context. The chair of United Nations Enable has offered this working definition for discussion:

Disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments, conditions, or illnesses and the environmental and attitudinal barriers they face. Such impairments, conditions, or illnesses may be permanent, temporary, intermittent, or imputed, and include those that are physical, sensory, psychosocial, neurological, medical, or intellectual.

Further Research

In addition to the disparity in religious service attendance, the 2004 National Organization on Disability/Harris survey documented the following critical gaps between Americans with disabilities and the general population:

  • » Only 35 percent of people with disabilities reported being employed full time or part time, compared to 78 percent of those who do not have disabilities.
  • » People with disabilities are three times more likely to live in poverty and have an annual household income below $15,000 (26 percent versus 9 percent).
  • » People with disabilities remain twice as likely to drop out of high school (21 percent versus 10 percent).
  • » People with disabilities are twice as likely to have inadequate transportation (31 percent versus 13 percent), and a higher percentage go without needed health care (18 percent versus 7 percent).
  • » Life satisfaction for people with disabilities also trails, with only 34 percent saying they are very satisfied, compared to 61 percent of those without disabilities.

Examining our congregational barriers

Once we have reflected upon the underlying assumptions and attitudes we have about disability—a process that will need to happen again and again in order for our hearts and minds to be continually renewed—it’s time to turn to topics that might be more concrete in nature. In order to fully include people of all ages, abilities, backgrounds, languages, and giftings, we’ll need to consider the various programmatic offerings of our churches.

Be intentional about making the church physically accessible to as many people as possible. Apply the principles of Universal Design (UD) to all of the places people meet, including the inside and outside spaces. Ron Mace, the architect who created the term Universal Design, defines this concept as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Be intentional about making your message intellectually accessible to as many people as possible. Apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to the curriculum and all learning programs. UDL provides a framework that addresses the primary barrier to learning for many individuals, especially those with disability: inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” curricula and instruction. By providing students with multiple means of representation (the “what” of learning), multiple means of action and expression (the “how” of learning), and multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning), individuals are able to acquire higher levels of comprehension and mastery of the material to be learned.

Educate the church on disability awareness and appreciation. Provide courses on disability awareness and theological instruction on the significance of suffering and brokenness—whether it be mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—in the life of all believers.

Provide opportunities for individuals to participate in every area of church life—worship, fellowship, discipleship, and mission—and to exercise their spiritual gifts within the body. For instance, a person with an intellectual disability may find it easier to drop pretenses and love others in the body unconditionally. Another individual with a disability may acquire a more mature faith in Christ at a younger age, because the isolation that comes from living with a disability forces the person to trust the Lord more fully than another believer without the same perceived need. We are all to acknowledge our dependence on God for everything. Some people, because of their circumstances, have an advantage in this area. Seek to discover areas of strength among all people and plug them into an area of service where they could use those gifts.

When practicing ordinances—such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper—take into account the needs of each person, not only those who are able-bodied and able-minded. Ask individuals with disability if they need an accommodation, and, if so, seek to provide it. This may take some creativity. For example, if an individual with a disability is afraid to make a public profession of faith during baptism, provide this person with as many opportunities to become comfortable with the process as possible. Have the person observe the ordinances, assist with the ordinances, and even practice the ordinances.

Breaking down barriers

Jesus Christ commissioned the Church to make disciples of all the world’s peoples, including those from every culture and stratum of society. Yet statistics indicate a failure on the part of the Church to fully include those with disability in this mandate. Historical attitudes and long-held beliefs inhibit progress in this area. Focused attention on removing attitudinal and other programmatic hinderances could potentially permit the Church to realize this vision more fully. Let us work toward the day when there will be no barriers between us.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2011 issue of In Part magazine.
Nancy J. Patrick

Nancy J. Patrick is an associate professor of special education and the director of the graduate program in education at Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.). She’s authored several books on autism spectrum disorders, the most recent entitled Social Skills for Teenagers and Adults with Asperger Syndrome (2008). She and her husband serve as core team members at a church plant, Living Legacy Church, in Hershey, Pa.


Tammy Stauffer Posted on May 1, 2012

Re: Educate the church on disability awareness and appreciation: one of the best resources I've come across for doing this was created by Music for the Soul -

The song 'Whole in the Sight of God' was written by Steve Siler when he and his wife discovered that their son would be born with spina bifida.

The entire CD project is a compilation of music and spoken word to do exactly what was so artfully stated in your article.
Your work here is a very powerful piece by the way, and I hope we have permission to highlight this in the next Music for the Soul newsletter. ??

Thank you for your willingness to address this sensitive subject and for accomplishing that with honor and truth.

Blessings to you.
Tammy Stauffer

Anita Culp Posted on February 22, 2012

What a breath of fresh air.
We were ushered into the world of disability when our son sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident. We were not going to a BIC church at the time, but church suddenly became an unfriendly place. The only accessible door was at the back of the church where he came in and out but was out of the flow of people and so ended up without fellowship.
Meals and meetings were held in the basement where he could not go with his wheelchair and so we had a decision. Do we go home with him or stay for the meeting/meal.
Although the article was in relation to mental disabilities, it had a lot in common with physical disabilities. I loved the part about finding their gifts and including them in ministry.
I had the privilege of watching my autistic nephew's baptism in the Fairland BIC. What a moving experience.
Thank you Nancy

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