"When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?' Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
For folks who are not disabled, the Bible's healing narratives often land as inspirational, a source of great hope and encouragement. But for those who are actually disabled, the impact of these stories is often decidedly more complicated. (Please note, as a person with multiple physical and mental health disabilities, I choose to use the term "disabled." Others prefer person-first language, which prioritizes personhood above the disabilities that person has, e.g., "person with disabilities." For abled people, best practices in the US are typically to use person-first language when speaking generally and to find out what individuals prefer when speaking to or about them.) What if someone is blind or D/deaf and believes that to be a central part of their identity that they don't wish to have removed? What if someone is unable to walk, and the healing they long for is not the sudden ability to walk, but equal access to adaptive devices? Or if they have a skin condition caused by impoverished living conditions? Simply healing their skin is not going to fix much of their suffering or prevent the skin condition from reoccurring. Disabled people are not a monolith, and our needs and desires vary greatly, as do our theological positions about our disabilities.
Given this diversity, those who carry a responsibility for faith formation in the church must be especially conscious of how they teach about ability/disability to congregants of all ages, but especially young people. We live in a culture where ableism and lack of accessibility are the norm, but churches are uniquely positioned to provide an example of what it can look like when all are truly welcome, just as they are.
At its core, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require fixing in order to be worthy. This is diametrically opposed to the Bible's central message of God's all-encompassing love for all people and all of creation. But we needn’t remain stuck in ableist patterns, and there are simple steps all congregations can take to become more welcoming:
- Familiarize yourself and your congregants with the social model of disability. Instead of holding up a single "good/healthy" ideal against which all bodies are judged, the social model of disability posits that if society's expectations make experiences inaccessible to a certain portion of the population (literally "dis-able-ing" us), it is society that is in need of fixing.
- Ask people of all ages about what in your church is inaccessible to them: physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. Do not assume that you know who is disabled and how. Although at least one-fifth of the US population is disabled at any given time, shame around disability and the "bootstrap" mentality prevent many people from being comfortable advocating for themselves when things are inaccessible. Start to become aware of what activities require body parts, senses, and abilities and whether those requirements are really essential (e.g., kneeling for communion, reading in candlelight, long periods of quiet, etc.).
- Hire disability consultants to review your physical space, programs, and processes. Ensure that these consultants are disabled themselves, and make sure to compensate them for their time, labor, and expertise.
- Be honest about and repent the history of the church and how it has treated disabled people, especially after the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many people assume that churches are exempt from the ADA for financial reasons. While that in itself is painful (no one deserves to be told that it's too expensive to welcome them to Christ's table), the fact of the matter is that finances are only a small part of the picture. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, prominent Christian organizations successfully argued that they should have the right to discriminate against disabled people, particularly people with HIV and AIDS, on faith-based grounds. That is a history we must reckon with. Even our youngest members can learn that, for a long time, churches often treated disabled people and LGBTQIA2S+ people badly, and now it’s time to do better and say we're sorry.
- Uplift the stories of the disabled people in scripture who don't have their disabilities miraculously taken away (e.g., Moses and Mephibosheth) alongside those who do. Pay attention to language in your music, preaching, and prayers that characterize certain bodies as broken and others as whole.
- Learn from disabled theologians. The savior we worship is one who noticed disabled people, even when they were invisible to much of society. He centers them frequently in his ministry and teaching, listens to their stories and requests, and when he heals them, he does so in ways that restore their places in the community and empowers them for leadership. We would do well to follow his example.