It’s a national tragedy that we as a society in North America are throwing away human lives through abortion, and such a high percentage of babies with Down Syndrome.
The discussion last week after my post about the Tucson shooting brought home to me all the more clearly that mental illnesses do not affect “those people” over there, but they are us. Pejorative labels like “crazy” and “whacko” only reinforce this separation or stigma which hovers over people with mental illnesses. But the people who live with mental illness are not just those with the disease itself, but also their family members, friends, fellow church members, and society as a whole.
The first tragedy, of course, is the senseless death of six people and wounding of several others including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords a week and a half ago. A second tragedy arises from the first. This second tragedy follows on the heels of every random act of mass violence.
People reacted in various ways to Dick Clark's continued work after his stroke six years ago. Some laugh at him. Some appreciate him. Some think he should quit. Some are creeped out by him. Some love him. Some are inspired by him. Some swear at him. These are common responses that people with disabilities have to deal with on a day to day basis.
Healthy churches think about and work at hospitality. Like our Lord himself, they give and receive hospitality graciously. In the body of Christ, all of us are hosts and all of us are guests. All of us reflect the Lord himself, who received and gave. All of us have something to give and something to receive from each other.
Journalist Ian Brown applied his skills to plumb the depths of raising a son, Walker, who has severe disabilities resulting from a genetic disorder, CFC. In his quest for meaning, among others he seeks out wisdom from Buddhism, from a shaman at a native healing center, and from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities. As a Christian, I can’t endorse all of his conclusions, but reading about his journey helped to enlighten my own path. It’s something that some of us Calvinists call “common grace.”
“Two thirds of Americans with disabilities who want to work are unemployed or underemployed,” says a statement on employment from the American Association of Persons with Disabilities (AAPD). What a waste! So many people, so many gifts and talents going unused or underused. It doesn’t have to be that way.
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.
This guest blog by Alan Johnson, organizer of Widening the Welcome, asks how we talk about mental illnesses. He writes, "Language can be tricky. It can elucidate things or muddy things. So what can we do? Keep on keeping on working on language seeking to describe how things are. Perhaps the best thing is to talk with the person who is affected by a “mental illness” or a “brain disorder” or a “disability” to see how they see it themselves. This is all about relationships anyway."
Last week I asked why we tend to limit our idea of diversity in church to ethnic diversity. Like one reader responded to the question last week, diversity of ability falls outside of most people's thinking because most people don't want people with disabilities included in their activities.
When we envision the diverse church, in our minds' eye, we see a diversity of skin colors, foods, ethnic identities, and languages. Usually, we also see we see the young and the old, male and female. But in our vision of the diverse church, we rarely see a boy who uses a wheelchair, woman who lives with mental illness, a girl with Down Syndrome, a man who is blind, or a woman who is Deaf and uses sign language. Why?
Many people have to stay away from church fellowship because their allergies or chemical sensitivities prevent them from interaction with the people there. Churches can take steps to bring at least some people back into community again.
Mark Stephenson led several workshops on inclusion of people with disabilities in church life at a conference in Limuru, Kenya. At the third and final session of his workshop, a pastor stood up and said with great passion, "Brothers and sisters, we must do something about this. The time to act is now." Everyone then applauded!
Besides the usual accessibility stuff like ramps and accessible bathrooms, this dorm has built-in lifts, and pagers to call for help 24/7 from personal assistants (most of whom are also U of I students).
Let's keep talking about the affects of the Americans with Disabilities act on churches. How has your church been doing at including people with disabilities? What barriers still need to be overcome in building architecture, or in programming and communication, or in peoples' attitudes?