As a Christian with a disability, I have first hand experience as to what it is like entering into the church community with a disability. Although I can’t speak to what churches are like around the world, the following is based on my experience with churches where I live. I have been to many different churches both as a regular attendee and as a visitor, and no matter what context I’m in, I always feel on the outer because of my disability. I also wonder why in comparative to the number of people with disabilities in the community, there are not more people with disabilities in the church?
I really do think that although people within the Church do their best to accommodate those of us with additional needs, the institution as a whole unintentionally marginalises and excludes people with disabilities. It is an institution designed with the able-bodied in mind that seldom looks for ways to attract people with disabilities into their community. Therefore, the church unintentionally isolates some of the most desperate people in society who need to know Christ’s love and to be apart of the body of Christ. In saying that there are several churches that run programs for people with intellectual disabilities, but to date I haven’t come across a church that openly outreaches to those with physical disabilities. Look in the Bible and you see that Jesus is very clear in his outreach to people with disabilities. Luke 14:13 – 14 states “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
If you think about it, the church is simply not design for people with disabilities. Very rarely are there spots in main seating areas reserved for people in wheelchairs, yet we’re happy to mark of spots for parents with prams. Most church buildings are not designed or factor in the attendance of people with wheelchairs.
One of the primary ways I feel people with disabilities are excluded in the church is through the sacrament of communion. Through my observation, this is a sacrament that is carried out by churches in many different ways, but it appears to be at the exclusion (I think unintentionally) of people with disabilities and even to a degree the elderly as well. If communion is important to do in the first place, then why are we effectively excluding Christians with needs from participating in communion? I’ve only been to two churches that were willing to make adjustments so I could participate in Communion.
Furthermore, in my experience churches seldom give people with disabilities opportunities to serve in the Church. In some churches I have attended there seems to be an unwillingness to look at ways in which people with health challenges can serve within a church. Perhaps it’s viewed out of a kindness to not place added stress on the individual. What might actually be occurring is that the church is unintentionally marginalising and excluding the person from the community, by stopping them from fully participating within the church. I think this comes back to my observation in my previous blog that the church looks at people as a ‘commodity’, and don’t know what to do with the ‘unhealthy commodity’.
How can a church better support someone with a disability?
1.Humbly ask the individual how their disability impacts them on a day-to-day basis, including their attendance at church. Don’t assume you know what their life is like, but listen to their response. Do not pass judgement on them because they have a disability.
2. Be willing to work with the individual to make attending church or church events accessible. Don’t wait for the individual to raise issues, but be proactive in asking them, as they will see that accessibility in church is one less barrier they need to overcome.
3. Be willing to make modifications so that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in all areas of the church. For example working out a way they can participate in Communion.
4. Be willing to think outside the box so that a person with a disability might be able to serve the church either on a Sunday or in another way throughout the week. Serving in the church will help an individual with a disability feel more a part of the community.
5. Look for ways as a church to follow Jesus command and outreach to those with disabilities. In doing so, be willing to make necessary modifications to the church so that people with disabilities are able to easily attend the church.
6. Encourage and allow support workers to be present with the individual at church and church events, because it is an amazing opportunity to outreach to their support workers.
7. Even though a person with a disability has support workers, there may still be gaps in services at times. Ask how the church can be practically supporting the person with a disability.
Although I standby this blog as my experience with many different churches in Australia, this past Sunday I visited a church where the sermon was on Luke 14 and our command to witness to the marginalised in our community. I have only visited this church several times, and spoken to this minister who was preaching once before. However, after the service we engaged in a conversation about people with disabilities attending churches. Without me identifying the struggles I face in attending church, this minister asked how the church could help me overcome barriers, and suggested a number of ways in which the Church could assist people with disabilities. I came away filled with joy that I had seen in action a Church willing to accept and make modifications for a person with a disability.