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.
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.
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.