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Embodying Equity: Disability Justice Within the Church

Disability is a theological topic, because people of every kind of ability are created in God’s Image; moreover, through both our limitations and our gifts, people with disabilities indicate the uniqueness and breadth of God’s Image. Disability is a political issue too, because people with disabilities long for equity—freedom and human flourishing—for people of all body types. In this short post, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to briefly define disability, ableism, accessibility, and justice. Second, I’m going to use those definitions to illustrate how Christians of all body types can embody equity, and form community, in our varied contexts.

First, what’s disability? Many scholars of disability observe that disability is both an embodied difference, and a practical limitation that affects people’s physiological or social activities. For multiple reasons, some people can’t engage in certain activities or perform specific actions that most people would consider “normal” (e.g., Yong 2007; Black 1996). Plus, disabilities come in different kinds. They can be physical, like cerebral palsy, or intellectual, as with the autism spectrum. Similarly, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression can be called emotional disabilities (e.g., Swinton 2000). Moreover, disability is a political issue, partly because many industrial societies are complicit in ableism, discrimination against and oppression of people with disabilities by those of able body. Ableism can hinder many from belonging.

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures illustrate some ways that people can give each other access.

For Christians, and others, with disabilities, achieving true equity and truly flourishing in our different bodies begins with the provision of accessibility, the entry-way to God’s dignity and joy. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures illustrate some ways that people can give each other access. For instance, God pairs Moses, who may have had a speech difference, with his brother Aaron when they freed the Israelites from Egyptian rule (Exodus 4:10ff). Similarly, King David gives Mephibosheth, his friend Jonathan’s son, a seat at his table, although Mephibosheth experiences paraplegia that would surely limit his usefulness to a warlike king like David (2 Sam. 9). Most significantly, Jesus, David’s descendant, welcomes and embraces  people with disabilities! For instance, in his ministry, he heals and befriends men who are blind (John 9; Mark 10:46-52), and a woman who lives with internal bleeding (Mark 5:25-34). These varied scriptural examples of hospitality demonstrate accessibility very clearly.

All of these definitions raise the question of how we might define justice. One can define justice as sharing power, or—to use a term favoured by activists—“solidarity.” For instance, Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of Latin American liberation theologies, calls justice a conversion to the “sacrament of the neighbour.” Simply put, justice means acting in accordance with the needs of people who are oppressed—including believers with disabilities!

Like other Christians with disabilities, I yearn and ache for true justice.

All of these definitions are relevant to me. In my first paragraph, I wrote “we” and “our,” because I’m a person with disabilities. I have spastic cerebral palsy, which—to oversimplify—is a neurological condition that influences one’s motor control. Because of cerebral palsy, or “CP” for short, I live with both physical and intellectual disabilities that impact everything that I do. Like other Christians with disabilities, I yearn and ache for true justice.

Second, in light of all this, how can Christians offer each other access? How can believers of able body and believers with disabilities fulsomely embody equity, and really live out justice? I can think of several strategies for the creation of justice for worshippers with disabilities. Most significantly: make the effort to befriend people with disabilities in your churches. We want to belong and serve in the Church, just like people of able body! Other practical ideas for creating equity include: use diverse forms of media in worship (for instance, videos, captions, dance, pictures), print documents in bright, contrasting colours, and write sermons to which people with intellectual and learning disabilities can relate. Moreover, offer audio support, like FM systems or ASL interpretation, in your churches, put up bright, clear signage to mark different areas in your church, and tell newcomers where the accessible parking and bathrooms are. All these ideas, and more, can help churches to be hospitable, so that they can both embody equity, and help people with disabilities to form healthy church communities.

CRC's Disability Concerns ministry has many resources and volunteers to help churches do the kinds of things Mike talks about in his blog!  Connect with them today.

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