Disability awareness and advocacy

Who have we unintentionally excluded? What barriers keep the full body of Christ from gathering and participating? Whose voices are we talking over? Whose gifts and leadership remain untapped?

David sits on the far-right side of the third pew. When the pastor asks for “joys and concerns,” he raises his hand, eager for his time at the microphone. Typically, David’s prayer concerns are for his housemates in our community’s home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But on Easter Sunday, when the church was crowded with visitors unfamiliar with this weekly routine, David took extra time at the microphone. He started calling parishioners by name, requesting them to come forward and stand beside him. Robert, come forward please. Lorna … Sharon … Evelyn. David’s roll call went on and on, leaving us all wondering where he was going and how much worship time this might take. When David finally had all his requested people gathered around him, he choked up. Through heavy breaths of emotion, he finally got his words out. “I just want to say thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do for me.”

The church I attend in Monmouth, Illinois, has always known David (and a few other local adults with intellectual disabilities) as members of their faith community. This can lead to unexpected moments during worship. But this church rolls with it. David is not just someone to whom the church is ministering. He belongs to the community itself.

As I began to recruit contributors for this issue on disability awareness and advocacy, I was referred to Erin Raffety, who teaches at Princeton Seminary. I asked Erin to write an article for this issue from a theological and biblical perspective. Before she agreed to write, though, she asked if I had any contributors with disabilities. At that point, I had a lead on one, but no more. Erin rightfully insisted these voices be centered and gave me a long list of recommendations, including Bailie Gregory’s perspective on who needs healing and Caroline Cupp’s benedictory on the gift of confusion and complexity. I was grateful for the help and the challenge. Disability awareness begins by listening to those with disabilities. Erin named the damage done when we speak over people with disabilities and don’t center their voices in the conversation.

Churches are often spaces sought by people hoping for belonging and acceptance. But we have room to grow. In her book, Dutiful Love: Empowering Individuals and Families Affected by Mental Illness, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty discusses a national study revealing that fewer than half of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in faith communities attended a religious service in the prior month. Reasons for this lack of participation, Hinson-Hasty writes, stem from architecture, attitudes, communication, programs and worship experiences that present barriers to full participation for these individuals and their families. Families of children with disabilities report that they don’t participate because they would need more support to do so. Responses to the survey also revealed that stigma and shame associated with mental illness contributed to low participation.

Hinson-Hasty traces an empowerment thread throughout Scripture where people with mental and physical disabilities are not just objects of charity but agents of change and divine activity. The line of beliefs, attitudes and practices she highlights affirm the whole creation in God’s image. Hinson-Hasty writes, “Human beings are valued not because of some perceived ideal physical state but because we are created in the image of God.”

As we consider the empowerment to which we are called, we might also contemplate how we can cultivate a greater sense of belonging in our faith communities. Who have we unintentionally excluded? What barriers keep the full body of Christ from gathering and participating? Whose voices are we talking over? Whose gifts and leadership remain untapped?

In her poem, “Infirm,” Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

“Everybody here is infirm.
I am enough to be beautiful.”

We are enough. We all belong, no matter our infirmities. May there be no barriers to this beautiful truth.