Welcoming people with disabilities

 

I’m sitting in church, the Bible reading is about to begin, and I’ve forgotten my Bible. The person to my right glances at me and notices I have no Bible. They incline their head towards me, and hold their Bible between us so we can share. I nod, smile a thank you, look down, and pretend to read.

I’m only pretending because I have no sight in one eye, and about 10% sight in the other, due to retinoblastoma (childhood cancer of the eye). For me to read ‘normal’ text, it needs to be about three inches away from my nose and I need to use a magnifier.

You may wonder why I pretend. Firstly, I want to seem polite: I am British, after all. Secondly, I want to appear to be a Good Christian, and everyone knows that Good Christians follow along when someone is reading from the Bible, and they keep looking at the text during the sermon. And thirdly, I don’t want appear weird.

If I reflect on what’s really going on in my heart, it seems that I care a lot more about how people view me than how God views me. I want to appear the same as everyone else. Of course, this isn’t unique to me or to people with disabilities. (Well, the pretending to read may be, but the caring what others think isn’t.) But it can be a real struggle for someone with a disability.

In my experience, disabled people, along with most people in minority groups, lie on a spectrum that runs between two extremes — wanting to deny there is any difference between you and others, and; making that difference your identity. I usually tend more towards the pretending there’s no difference. I realise not all disabled people can do this: if you’re in a wheelchair, it’s hard to pretend that you’re not. But I do know someone who has had both eyes removed, who will at times pretend she can see perfectly well (resulting into many bruised noses from having walked into lamp posts).

This can be because people don’t always react well to disability. Sometimes people stare; sometimes they talk about you loudly; sometimes they treat you like a moron. That’s not OK. But at the same time, we’re not defined by others’ opinion of us or reactions to us. We’re defined by who Jesus says we are — much-loved children of God. God has permitted us to have whatever disability we do, and he wants to use us as we are — not as we might pretend to be. At the times when I’m feeling judged or belittled by others, I need to run to my Heavenly Father, know his grace, his approval, and his strength to live day by day.

When people react badly to disability, I get why some disabled people go to the other end of the spectrum — making disability their identity. All of us are tempted to look down on those who look down on us. So we band together with others like us and fight for our rights. Sometimes when I ‘demand my rights’ in this way, it can make me feel superior to you: it tempts me to think that you’re just there to meet my needs.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s vital to expend the effort to make things accessible to people with disabilities. But we mustn’t do so in a way that makes our disability our identity: our identity is found in Christ alone. It’s right for Christians with disabilities to ask, firmly and repeatedly, for things to be made accessible for them. It’s vital that other Christians ask for the same thing. But to make this a ‘demand’ or a ‘right’ feels ungracious and ungrateful.

I can see this attitude in myself at times — even sometimes in church gatherings! If there have been three songs in a row that I don’t know, followed by a long creed — all of which I can’t see and therefore can’t join in with — a bitter voice can start inside my head: “Why don’t people realise I can’t see this? Don’t they know they are alienating me? They’ve let me down again!” Satan loves this – he wants me to demand my rights in a way that makes me bitter and ungracious when I don’t get them. A far better response is to ask Jesus to help me not to be bitter, to help me to engage as much as possible by listening to the words, and to help me forgive. Then afterwards I might graciously remind someone to please send me the words in advance.

There are many ways that churches can welcome and love people with disabilities. Firstly, they can talk about disability. In Britain and elsewhere, it can be a bit taboo to ask someone about their disability. It seems too personal, or something. But not talking about it makes me feel more like I need try to cover it up, as everyone pretends there is no issue. Most people I know are very happy to chat about their disability, so ask questions: be interested in what life is like for that person. All disabilities are different and different people experience them differently, so ask. Ask how practically the church can help them, how things can be made more accessible for them. Ask how you personally can help them. (Notice I’ve said, “Ask”; don’t assume. I’ve heard of too many people being dragged across roads they don’t want to cross.) And when someone has outlined some difficulties or suggested ways you can help, go ahead and love them by actually helping. Ask for forgiveness when you fail.

It can also be helpful to talk through how their disability affects their relationship with God, both positively and negatively. What has God taught you through your disability? What particular spiritual struggles do you find because of your disability? In light of what I’ve said above, it can be particularly encouraging (and challenging!) to talk through identity issues. Be wise about when and how you have these conversations though: you shouldn’t assume that you can bombard a disabled person with this kind of conversation if you’re not their friend (any more than you would with someone who doesn’t have a disability). Again, people are much more than just their disability: we have to avoid both extremes of pretending that disability doesn’t exist and of defining people by their disability.

Secondly, churches should be wise in the way they talk about and pray for healing. It’s not wrong to pray for the healing of a disabled person: we see in the New Testament that Jesus has the power to do it. But he doesn’t always choose to (e.g. with Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12). I’ve sometimes had people make me a pet healing project, which is pretty awful. They pray for your healing without asking if that’s what you want (something I don’t think Jesus ever does), and then you feel responsible for their disappointment when it doesn’t work. If a disabled person asks you to pray for healing, then go for it. But talk through with them the fact that God may use extraordinary grace and heal them, but he hasn’t promised to right now. He has, however, promised to give you ‘ordinary’ grace that can keep you going day to day through suffering and difficulty. He can use that suffering and difficulty to make you more like Jesus; this allows you to bless others and to demonstrate Jesus to them (e.g. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7). And one day, when Jesus returns, everything will be made new and you will certainly have a resurrection body that is no longer disabled. This is a powerful truth that every Christian — not just the disabled — should cling to. It is very sad when a disabled person becomes so obsessed with being healed in the here and now that they miss how much God loves them in the midst of disability and how he can still use them as they are. If you have people in your church giving testimony to how God has healed them, then do praise God for that. But please also have people giving testimony to how God has worked in them and through them in the midst of disability and suffering, so we can praise God for that too. Because God can and does use disability for his glory.


Lou Hill is married to Bob. With their two guinea pigs, they live in Brighton, on the south coast of England. Their first baby is due at the end of August. Lou works for Christ Church, Brighton.