The medical, educational, and social service communities give labels to people such as “autism,” “cerebral palsy,” “dementia,” and “macular degeneration.” These labels can be useful for understanding and helping people, but a person is not his or her label. Barbara Newman writes,
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with diabetes. It’s helpful for me to know this when she comes to my home. It helps me understand why we have needles in the garbage. It helps me stock up on the right kind of foods before she arrives for a visit. It also helped me understand the day she felt so strange in the grocery store and asked me to give her some orange juice before I had even paid for it. But it would be a mistake to overly focus on my mother-in-law’s condition and fail to appreciate her unique personality and interests. We don’t think about diabetes all the time; we laugh, talk, cry, shop, and watch movies together. Although I am grateful to be aware of the diabetic piece of my mother-in-law, it is only a portion of the complex and delightful person she is (Barbara Newman, Autism and Your Church, p. 21).
Similarly, knowing the particular disability a person lives with will help churches to better understand and help that person, but people are individuals with wonderfully complex needs, gifts, joys, challenges, and interests. As advocates for people with disabilities, we must encourage people in our churches to focus on people and relationships and not be overly concerned with labels. When the education team thinks about how best to include Kyle in Sunday school, they take his Down syndrome into account, but they also note Kyle’s likes and dislikes, things that calm him and make him agitated, ways that he learns best, and classroom activities that are challenging for him. Most importantly, they consider Kyle’s gifts and encourage him to use them in the classroom and the church.
Newman says that naming someone’s disability is like telling what state her family visited on their last vacation. It gives you a general idea what the vacation was about, but until you talk with the Newmans about what they did on vacation, you don’t know much about it. In the same way, we will not get to know the people with disabilities in our churches until we develop relationships with them. (This article is quoted from Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs Everybody Serves. Ed. Terry A. DeYoung and Mark Stephenson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformed Church Press, 2011. Disability Concerns makes this download available for free.)
For further information:
- Brett Webb-Mitchell, Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church
- Erik W. Carter, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations
- Disability Is Natural (www.disabilityisnatural.com) has many helpful articles on our language and attitude about disability.