Churches often look at buildings first to determine how well they welcome people with disabilities into their fellowship. Do you we have a ramp? Accessible restrooms? A hearing loop?
While these physical improvements significantly decrease disability discrimination and increase inclusion, our attitudes present the most important barrier to engagement of people with disabilities in church life.
It’s easy to look at a check list and determine whether or not one has built a ramp, but how do you measure attitudes toward people with disabilities? Last fall, Disability Concerns sent bulletin inserts to all Christian Reformed churches with a continuum called, “The Journey of Disability Attitudes.” This continuum is based on fine work done by Dan Vander Plaats and others at Elim Christian Services.
Here’s a quick summary of the five stages along this journey, and statements that would be expressed by someone with this attitude:
Most people who claim to have disabilities are looking for a government handout. The ones who live in group homes should not be allowed in public; their appearance is troubling. They have disabilities because they lack faith or are being punished for sin.
People who have disabilities are needy people, and it is good to feel sorry for them. But, thank God, no one I know has a disability. Someone should help them and give their lives meaning.
People with disabilities are created in God’s image; for that reason their lives have value. It's great that our church helps the local group home with yard work and building maintenance sometimes. Sometimes the youth group goes there to sing for the residents too!
As Christians, the Bible teaches that there is no "us" and "them," people without disabilities and people with disabilities. The body of Christ is just "us." God brings many different people into his body, including people with disabilities, and we all benefit as we grow in friendship with each other.
Since God calls each of us to serve and praise Him, churches need to encourage people who have disabilities to use their gifts in ministry. Together, we who live with disabilities and we who live without disabilities encourage and equip each other in every good work.
Elim has recently produced several videos describing this journey in more detail. I highly recommend them for use in youth or adult education at church. The short video and several 5 Stages resources are posted on Elim's website. Both videos are posted in Elim's Vimeo channel. The short video lasts seven minutes, and the longer video lasts fifteen minutes. These videos keep viewers engaged by featuring people who live with disabilities themselves.