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Last week I asked why we tend to limit our idea of diversity in church to ethnic diversity. I give some ideas of my own below. One reader responded last week; please feel free to continue the conversation.

Discomfort. That reader, Rich Dixon, who wrote a guest blog several months ago, suggests, “I suspect it comes down to the simple fact that ‘they’ make us uncomfortable.” We humans are repulsed by that which is different. I remember reading an old account of a white person who watched some Africans eating from a common dish. He wrote that they put their “paws” in the dish. The author was so repulsed by the differences between himself and the Africans that he could not bring himself to say that the people he observed had hands. Rich was uncomfortable with the man’s vocalizations. (I give him credit for admitting his discomfort. Such honesty brings us closer to true community.) Diversity becomes undesirable if it includes people that the group does not want to include.

Spread phenomenon. Samuel Kabue, consultant and executive secretary of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network, taught me the term “spread phenomenon.” In the way that a small pat of butter can be spread to cover an entire slice of bread, so people who meet someone with a disability tend to spread that disability to every aspect of the person’s life. For example, if a woman speaks differently because she has cerebral palsy, many people assume that she has an intellectual disability too. If a man is blind, many people also treat him as if he were deaf. If a teenager uses a wheelchair, many servers assume that he cannot order a meal for himself at a restaurant. Diversity is seen as a positive sharing of the rich giftedness that comes from valuing the differences among us. I suspect that spread phenomenon keeps us from including people with disabilities in our definition of diversity because spread phenomenon keeps us from seeing the gifts that people with disabilities bring to the church fellowships of which they are a part.

Culture and news coverage: The whole idea that diversity equals ethnic diversity is the air we breathe in North American culture. It is tough to break out of a box that our whole culture builds together.

Those are my ideas for now. Anyone else?


Thanks Mark for asking this question. Indeed, our culture has reduced diversity to ethnic diversity. It is largely, as you say, caused by the media.

Another reason is possibly the advocacy of social movements or causes - the momentum or power of a lobby or movement. The ethnic diversity cause can be traced back to the civil rights movement in the 60s, spearheaded by such powerful and charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Their movement is widespread and has captured people's imaginations over the years, and entrenched in folklore, and cultural memory. We don't have anything similar, not that I know of anyways, in regards to disability diversity.

There are famous people with disabilities in our culture but if I am not mistaken they tend NOT to advocate for people with disabilities to be included, but advocating for cures. Two that I can think of is Terry Fox in Canada, who is entrenched in Canada's cultural memory but Terry Fox was running for a cure for cancer. And the other one is Christopher Reeves (a.k.a. Superman) as a quadriplegic (sorry if I misspelled here) advocating for medical research. So, our culture collectively lacks the imagination to think of diversity as including disabilities because their collective imaginations and collective memories have not been shaped that way.

Great insight! The people with disabilities that get the most media coverage (and let's throw the Jerry Lewis telethons into this mix too) are those who, it seems, consider disability as an intruder in their lives, not part of their identity. At least, this is the narrative that the media seems to understand. I would guess that most in the media do not understand people who embrace a disability as part of their identity in the way that civil rights leaders embrace their ethnicity as part of their identity. Therefore, disability also is not portrayed as part of the diversity of human nature, but only as an intruder that must be overcome.

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