Good Answers to Questions about Disability

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Why is a church without people with disabilities incomplete?
What do we mean by the word “disability”?
What is ableism?
In what ways are people with disabilities marginalized by societies around the world?
What is “healing”?

A friend of mine, Carolyn Thompson, directed me to a pithy statement called “The Accessible Church: Toward Becoming The Whole Family Of God” which she helped draft for the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Here are some excerpts.

Why is a church without people with disabilities incomplete?
We believe what the apostle Paul taught that the Church is made up of many different parts like the human body and that all are necessary to the whole. None is less valuable than the others. If all parts are alike the body cannot function. Each has something unique to contribute. (I Cor.12:12-27)

What do we mean by “disability”?
Although we may not anticipate it, disability is a natural occurrence in our lives, a contingency of being human. . . . Disability does not fit into neat, orderly categories; it is not one of those adventures we can arrange on our own terms. It may be unpredictable and full of paradox. A disease or disability can manifest itself differently in each person, and some people have more than one disability. Any situation involving disability in an individual, a family, or a community will be affected by numerous factors besides the actual medical diagnosis or pathology. What is the impact of the person’s gender, age, race, class, culture, housing situation, religion/spirituality, and economic status? Is there a family or community support system? What are the personal relationships of the people involved? Is there access to appropriate health care? Is the disability obvious or is it “hidden?” Can/does the person “pass” as non-disabled? Is the disability recent and requiring great adjustment in self concept, or has the person been disabled since birth or early childhood so that the disability has always been part of his/her identity? Is the condition stable, sporadic, progressive, degenerative, or painful? Is or was extensive medical treatment required? We need to keep in mind that because of all these varied circumstances, two people with identical diagnoses may have very different attitudes, approaches, and outcomes relating to the disability.

What is “ableism”?
"Ableism" names a subtle and pervasive bias that assumes able-bodied people (people with no physical or mental impairments) are the norm and that people with disabilities represent an undesirable deviation from this norm. The impairments and limitations become the defining characteristic of the person.

In what ways are people with disabilities marginalized by societies around the world?
Discrimination against people with disabilities rests on this prejudicial measure of a person’s worth and acceptability. We let our thinking about disability get channeled into rigid classifications that see an individual as either healthy or sick, good or bad, broken or whole, obstinate or compliant, smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly, strong, or helpless. These interpretations leave no room for the ambiguity, fluctuation, and unpredictability that frequently characterize the lives of people with disabilities. We set up standards that frequently are unattainable by people with disabilities –   climbing stairs, reading 12 point type, comprehending algebra, speaking clearly – and then hold people in bondage to these expectations. We blame, reject, ignore, ridicule, pity, discount, or even despise and punish all who cannot meet our rigid ableist criteria.

What is “healing”?
Healing is not so much about having something fixed or corrected as it is about becoming whole and being restored to one’s rightful place in the community. This wholeness happens when all the parts of our individual and corporate lives that have been left out, neglected, or excluded are brought together in love.

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