Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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When people with disabilities go out into the community, they are patronised, ignored, abused verbally and physically.  They are treated appallingly.  My mother has recently broken her pelvis and had to use a wheelchair to go shopping. She commented on how people didn’t acknowledge her but only spoke to my sister who was pushing her.  We talked about how many of my friends who use wheelchairs or who have a learning disability face this on a daily basis… Discrimination and verbal abuse.  A friend who works in a primary school talked about popular playground insults at the moment being “diabetic” or “autistic”, as well as the old “retard” word that still surfaces.   The secondary school kids I work with often talk about autism being insulted and used as an insult.

You might think this only happens out there, in society.  But what about churches?  Would you say they hate disabled people?  I had a recent conversation with an autistic woman where her church told her she was demon possessed. My friend was told he wasn’t welcome in Sunday school because of his disabilities.  And many more families who are asked to leave churches, children who ‘can’t be coped with’ and so much more.  It’s no wonder that people with disabilities are one of the most unreached peoples with the Gospel in our country.

There’s a lot of variation in people’s abilities.

We are all born with differences, some of them mean a person needs more support or adjustments.  But also 83% of people with a disability were not born with that disability.  We are all just seconds away from being disabled, so a saying goes.  My mum fell off her bed.  Hopefully her difficulty with walking will be temporary, but it is likely to have a permanent impact.  Some people have needs that some churches feel they cannot support.  The problem we see in Christianity is there is still a view that illness, disability or impairment is the result of sin…or more specifically these days, the result of not having enough faith.  We forget that His power is made perfect in our weakness. Here, I am thinking about those who say they cannot support people with disabilities – their weakness is God’s chance to show His enabling.

It is the way we see disability and wholeness that is at stake here.  The world sees disability as a burden on society.  It sees disability as shame.  Something to hide away from the ‘normal’ people.  We see disability as a broken person, not normal or whole.  Really? Who is perfect among you?

But in church we need to remember that 2 Corinthians 12:9 says,

But he said to me, “My grace is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So I am very happy to brag about how weak I am. Then Christ’s power can rest on me. 

Paul had some condition that he called “a thorn in my side” and this reminded him that he was weak, so he could remember he needed Christ’s enabling power.  Jacob fought with an angel and was left with a permanent disability. I am not saying God gives people their disabilities (although in these cases he clearly did), but like Joni Erikson Tada, he allows people to live with disabilities so that He can bring the gospel to others through his strength and not ours.  Please do look up Joni’s story (link below).  After a riding accident she became quadriplegic and has since had an amazing ministry because of her disability.  God made it an ABILTY.

Often it isn’t the person with a disability that is weak….it is us!

As soon as we think another person is a problem we back off, make excuses, pray for their healing because that makes it easier for us.  We see disability as a curse, something to feel sorry for, something we wouldn’t wish upon ourselves or our enemies even.  We have so many rules towards ministry that disabled people are shut out, ignored and discriminated against.   I’d call this hating disabled people.  Maybe you feel that is too strong a word.  Maybe first you should hear the stories from people who have disabilities and the way they have been treated first.   As Christians, this isn’t facing up to the reality of what we are doing.

1 Corinithans 12:24-26, 27b  (NIRV)

But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honour to the parts that didn’t have any.  In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.   You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.

Who are we to say only verbal people can be prophets?  Who are we to say only physically able people can be apostles and preachers?

But what if we stop and challenge our world view of disability?

What if like Joni, we call it ABILITY instead.  What if, in our churches we make adjustments, change things and acknowledge all our weaknesses before a Holy and Capable God.  What if people with disabilities were honoured and given opportunities to minister to others and grow in their gifts…just as they are?  What if we came before God and repented of our sin of hatred towards disabled people?  What if we saw all of us as weak and inadequate?  What if we stopped measuring a person’s intelligence and physical ability before deciding if they are gifted to serve in the church?   We would be in a much better place to support and help disabled people with their own understanding of who they are in Christ and where their disability fitted into their concept of God’s love. If we stopped to examine our own views first, it could change lives and the church.   As soon as a disabled person thinks others see them as less, then they can easily feel that God loves them less than others because of their disability.

great banquet

Painting graphic courtesy of Hyatt Moore.

There are changes happening. But for me they are painfully slow. The Church of England have recently discussed disabilities in Synod and are writing guidelines on supporting and including people with Down’s Syndrome that will go out to church leaders.  There are already guidelines for supporting autistic people and lots of advice about including and enabling Christians of all kinds of ABILITIES.   All the congregation can learn from the disabled people in their congregations first and then there are now plenty of sources of information on the internet.  I’ve listed some below.

Can a church really learn and change?

Can they learn enough about all these different types of disability and make their services, community and activities accessible to all these different people?

Well, yes…with God’s help and power. With his grace, once we acknowledge we are all in the same state before him….

…Because what you do is learn together.  You put it on your agenda and acknowledge your ignorance to God. God loves our humility. He loves solving problems for us and showing us the way.  What’s more he loves showing up our weaknesses so that He can show his power.  We can be a church of mixed abilities, where strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged, where everyone has gifts that are used to serve each other.  I am so happy when I hear of churches doing this. And there are many.  I don’t want to give a wrong impression of Christianity.  God is gracious and in challenging us to learn about how His body (the church) is really meant to function, it’s totally the opposite of the way society functions.  And disability can be embraced in his grace and mercy, and make us all function as a body more like Christ than ever.

I want to thank Kay Morgan-Gurr writing this:  ‘For Disabled People experiencing hate the church offers little.’   And Mark Arnold for writing this:  ‘A candle in the hurricane of hate.’   Please read them if you haven’t done already, for more perspectives and hope in this topic.

What we see today are churches changing, taking on a different perspective and many willing to start the learning journey together with disabled people.  I have a lot of hope that Jesus will work through us and shine his light to make the church strong in the way it includes and enables ALL Christians.

Ephesians 4:11-13  (NIRV)

So Christ himself gave the gift of the apostles to the church. He gave the prophets and those who preach the good news. And he also gave the pastors and teachers as a gift to the church.  He gave all these people so that they might prepare God’s people to serve. Then the body of Christ will be built up.  That will continue until we all become one in the faith. We will also become one in the knowledge of God’s Son. Then we will be grown up in the faith. We will receive everything that Christ has for us.

Links and Further Help

https://www.joniandfriends.org

https://www.eauk.org/idea/church-deaf-perspectives.cfm

http://www.torchtrust.org

http://additionalneedsalliance.org.uk

https://www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive

https://www.throughtheroof.org

https://www.message.org.uk/category/enable/

https://www.inclusive-church.org

https://www.kaymorgangurr.com

https://www.counteveryonein.org.uk

Comments on: "Do churches hate disabled people?" (2)

  1. So glad you shared this Lynn, it’s really helpful. Keep shining a light! 😀

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  2. When I was about 12 years old my home church built a new building that was intentionally accessible. It was the only church building in town at that time that was. Not long after we moved to the new building we had a new member — a young man in a wheelchair. He was so excited to actually be able to get into the building on his own and became very active including becoming the Jr. High youth group leader. The Red Cross also uses the building when needed — because of it’s accessibility. It is so easy to allow our buildings, attitudes and beliefs to reinforce and continue to spread prejudice against people with disabilities and become barriers to the love and grace of God. Sounds like you are doing good work — keep it up.

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