It’s risky for me to do a riff on his great speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. Applying it to another situation can sound cheesy. But King spoke out against injustice and for justice, specifically justice for African Americans who have been and continue to be targets of racism delivered in many different forms.
People with various disabilities are targets of another kind of prejudice, disability prejudice or ableism. While this prejudice has rarely been as obvious as Jim Crow, it has had equally devastating effects. For many decades, both the U.S. and Canada engaged in systematic, forced sterilization of people with various disabilities. The unemployment rate of people with disabilities is much higher than the rate for the general population. People with disabling conditions are much more likely to be victims of crime and abuse than the population as a whole. People with disabilities usually are the poorest in any community or society. Until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in the U.S. and various provincial laws in Canada, the built environment was hostile to people with physical disabilities. My late friend Nella Uitvlugt was fond of saying that while "African Americans had to sit at the back of the bus, people who used wheelchairs were not even allowed to get on the bus!"
When King spoke that momentous day in August 1963, he said that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.” With the level of poverty and isolation experienced by most people living with disabilities in North America, these statements apply to them today.
King charged his listeners not to “wallow in the valley of despair”. He called them to have hope and to respond to injustice without “drinking from the cup of bitterness or hatred” and to “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King concluded by laying out a vision of a better tomorrow, that people would turn from hatred and embrace true community, that people would turn from judging people by appearances and instead see the heart. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I have a dream too, that people with visible disabilities will not be judged by appearances but by the content of their character.
King said, “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” I have a dream too, that people living with disabilities will not be viewed as aliens in society and the church, but as fellow brothers and sisters; in the church as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Just a few weeks ago, Emily Colson, her son Max who has autism, and Colson’s step mother were driven from a theater before the movie even started because Max usually needs a little time to settle down after getting seated. The rest of attendance wouldn’t allow it. Sadly, similar incidents happen in church, with parents being asked never to bring their children back to church again.
I have a dream that the body of Christ will show society how welcome and hospitality are done right. I have a dream that the body of Christ will be the first place people living with disabilities will go to find acceptance, warmth, and opportunities to use their gifts in meaningful ways. I have a dream that the percentage of people living with disabling conditions is much higher in the church than in society at large because people with disabilities know that they have a place to belong among God’s people. I have a dream that the body of Christ here on earth will be as welcoming and loving as God himself.