“What’s wrong with you?”

by Rachael Lowe (with input from Catrin Harland-Davies)

“What’s wrong with you?” is not the most welcoming of ways to greet a university student looking for a new church family to join! Every disabled person has their own experiences and stories to tell. This article is my attempt, through my own recurring experiences at different churches, to briefly consider how we can make disabled people feel more welcomed and included.

Let’s start with language. I am a disabled person and use the social model of disability, but what does that mean? The social model says that disabled people are not a ‘problem to be fixed’ but rather we are disabled by the barriers that are created by society. For example, it could be the way that the built environment is designed, an organisation is set up and the attitudes which are held by individuals and communities, which disables people with impairments from full or easy participation.

The Bible has a lot to say about community, including church community. Paul reminds us of our interdependence – 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of us as a body, whose various parts each bring something different to the whole. No one part of the body can decide that it doesn’t belong. How much less, then, can we decide that someone else has no part to play, or limit what role they can exercise? Yet that is precisely what we are doing, if our buildings, the format of our worship, our language or attitudes exclude someone. And even our well-meaning intentions to include can come across as patronising and in themselves become a barrier. When we congratulate ourselves on our openness, because we’re willing to install a ramp or a hearing loop, or to introduce gluten-free bread, perhaps we should pause and reframe our perception. Are we going the extra mile to create an inclusive environment, or are we tokenistically rectifying our previous exclusive practices? Are we simply inviting ‘them’ into our space, or are we willing to recognise our own spiritual impoverishment and to journey humbly alongside people who experience our world differently?

At their best, churches are places of grace, in which we recognise that none of us comes in our own strength, but all are invited by Christ, who places no barriers in our way. Wesley claimed that ‘there is no holiness but social holiness’ – holiness comes by sharing together in the means of grace. As Methodists we recognise that ‘All can be saved’; surely, then, this means that all must be given the opportunity to be fully part of that sharing? Anything about our life and worship which creates barriers to people’s sharing in that social experience of holiness diminishes us all.

Churches are full of kind, well-meaning people. I might be touched that you want to pray for me, but to pray for healing without consent is very impertinent and insensitive. It does not recognise and value where the disabled individual is with their health and spiritual journey. In fact, if you ever feel moved by the Holy Spirit to pray for someone, do not assume, simply ask them what they would like prayers for. It’s about respecting that everyone can be in a different place and a healing for a visible disability might not be what that person most needs prayer for!

So what are the barriers in our churches? Commonly people think about physical barriers like steps to the front door. While this is true, I have come across many churches that have an accessible porch but then steps to the front! Or steps to the pulpit – disabled people are not only found in the congregation! Attitudes can also be a huge barrier. It has happened a few times where I have visited a new church wearing my university hoodie (you need a few brain cells to get into uni) and yet I get spoken to with a baby voice: “Awww, heellooo”!

When I arrive at a new church and get asked “What’s wrong with you?”, the asker isn’t appreciating that it’s as inappropriate  as asking a lady her dress size! – It’s that personal – there are more interesting things about me than the fact I am a wheelchair user! Try asking a question that shows you are interested in me, perhaps about my degree or travel experiences?

My challenge for us all is to think and reflect on the assumptions we make. If you are unsure how to help a disabled person – just ask them!

4 thoughts on ““What’s wrong with you?””

  1. Having lived for most of my life without much ‘disability‘ I am now severely deaf and can only walk a very short distance with two sticks. At my new church I feel able to tell people how they can help (or preferably to leave me to get on with it at my own slow pace) and there is massive appreciation and understanding. People will unobtrusively hold heavy doors open for me and move aside so that I can get by, but they don’t grab me by the arm in an effort to help (thus unbalancing me!) and they are patient when it takes me a long time to remove my gloves, sanitise my hands etc. while juggling bag and sticks. When inevitably I drop something – usually a stick – it is picked up and returned to me with a smile, and there isn’t so much as a hint that I am being patronised. Oh, I forgot to mention that I am also very old. And that my opinion and advice are sought and respected. In other words, my present disabilities are seen to be part of what I now am, but in no way do they define me.

    Not surprising then that in the line of communicants at my church there are crutches, walking frames and sticks, as well as less visible disabilities. This is ‘a place of grace’.

    Thank you for this piece, Rachael (and Cat!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Rachael for your personal comtribution on this. It seems to me that our world is slowly growing in awareness about the differences between people, and how some are embedded in prejudicial ways of thinking and acting that we are all socialised into. It makes for a world in which we all need to be willing to be self-critical, and alert to the ways our attitudes might have been shaped. Because so much of it is unconscious, even when we are working to bring it into consciousness, that involves a process of change and growth, both personally and in corporate cultural ways. Some of the characteristics needed for that process to be helped are empathy, openness, and a willingness to question ourselves. However, it’s in the nature of this that much of the time we leave those who feel the impact of prejudice to do the emotional work of pointing it out, challenging it, asking for other people to go through the process of change. I wonder whether we can develop a culture in the church, through the initiatives of the ‘Justice, Dignity and Solidarity’ programme which shifts the burden of that emotional work to the wider community.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. well said Rachel, my son, while not a wheel chair user has congenital heart disease, if he asks for prayer everyone assumes he wants prayer for healing and specifically for his heart, that is rarely the case, his life is much more than a condition! I hope that we will be able to work through our attitudes to make church truly accessible.

    Like

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