Where’s the Justice in That? The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It

Who is welcome at your church?  What makes you so sure?  What evidence do you have to prove this?

It was a typical Sunday as I made my way into the sanctuary, quickly found my place in the balcony, and prepared my heart for worship.  I love my church dearly, but today I was preoccupied with other things.  I had just got back from a Disability Theology conference and my thoughts were focused on our keynote speaker’s direct challenge that the church simply is not doing enough to welcome and include people with developmental disabilities.  I took the opportunity to survey the room (a view from above) and noted that although people of various cultures, ethnicities, age groups, and socio-economic status were present, there was sadly a proportionately low number of people with disabilities in the congregation.

This past weekend I attended the Tio Conference at Belfast Bible College.  The word Tio comes from the classical Greek word “to lift up, to honour, to advance, to value”…in essence to bring someone from invisibility to visibility and to give them a voice.  Yet, as our keynote speaker – Dr. Jeff McNair so clearly emphasized this is exactly what is lacking in so many of our churches and para-church ministries today.

It is quite a sad reality that many pastors and lay leaders are not given ample opportunities to attend conferences like these.  It seems that in many ways, disability ministry is still quite underdeveloped and it is to our great shame that even in countries as advanced as Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. we fail to see this as a primary need within the church.

Both for those of us who are part of the disability field as well as those who observe from a distance, the question that comes to the forefront of my mind is: why?  Why is it that while we are so focused on evangelism, outreach, and witness (all important things), we fail to include church planters and ministers with a background and interest in disability ministry?  Why is it that we are okay with making a robust youth and children’s program while not having any ministry for people with disabilities?  Where’s the justice in that?

God’s Word is for all people and the only way His Word can be proclaimed is through our own direct actions that result from the attitudes and preconceived ideas that we may hold within ourselves.

Our fundamental calling is to impart the love of Christ to each person drawing them deeper into God’s immeasurable peace. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves – to affirm their worth and to give them greater honor than we give to ourselves. BUT valuing another person takes sacrifice- it’s hard work. It is about recognizing the inherent worth of each person, their gifts, their strengths, and the presence of the Christ light in them.

For too long we (as individual Christians, the church, and general society) have failed to do exactly this, especially when it comes to people who are different than us – primarily people with disabilities. Many pastors will claim they love all people equally and want all people to come to the church, but often reality and logistics communicate something extremely different. Christians are called to be trail blazers, set apart from the world, but unfortunately, we often mirror worldly ways of approaching someone with a disability, further adding to hurt and marginalization.

It is not enough just to “tolerate” a person with a disability. On all sides and in every way we need to move from exclusion to inclusion, from complacency to change. We need to start thinking about these things and not being okay with the fact that even after all these years less than 20% of people with profound learning disabilities are welcomed and fully included into the life of our church. People with learning disabilities also can be jaded by the church and subsequently reject Christ so we need to think long and hard about the implications our apathy can have on others.

In the wise words of Wolf Wolfensberger, a leading pioneer in the disability sector, “Indeed without significant cost, an action should not be viewed as advocacy…even if it is otherwise valuable action.”

So what will you do to make the church a safer and more accessible place for adults with developmental disabilities?  I believe the key ingredient is to find a passion within ourselves to revolt against the current social norms and to believe that there are better alternatives.

Once we have addressed the issue within our own selves, we can then move on to directly ask someone with a disability how she perceives church, what is beneficial or difficult for her, and what types of supports she may need.  So much of what we do in our churches is simply NOT accessible to people with physical and intellectual disabilities because we do not KNOW what it would be like to be in their shoes.

After you have established what needs to change in your own church, the challenge then becomes to not remain insular, but to be outwardly focused – thinking of how you can connect with other resources and ministries as co-labourers rather than as competitors.  We can find ways to increase awareness of disabilities to the general population and to seek to end marginalization and apathy.

I have given you a lot to think about here, but I hope it helps set you on the path towards establishing and maintaining disability ministries within your own context.  Next time you go to church, why not have a look around and make a mental note of who is in attendance and what you can do to bring those who aren’t already there into the fold?  And next time the service is completely quiet, why not make some noise… because an inclusive church should never be silent.

Photo Credit: Deborah-Ruth Ferber (personal picture) 

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