“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!