We were sharing last time about our conviction that disability is NOT a matter of “something being wrong” with certain people, or certain bodies or brains. There is one other expression that I’ve often heard shared, frequently by very good-hearted people, that I believe needs to be challenged:
Namely, it is NOT true that “We’re all disabled,” despite well-meaning statements to the contrary.
I’ve heard folks try to build a sense of “solidarity” with people with disabilities by pointing out that “We all have our own limitations that hold us back.” “None of us have “the perfect body” or “the brightest mind,” so that “We all deal with being frustrated in achieving our full potential.” Or “We all live in a ‘fallen world’,” so that “We all have to deal with the disabling effects of sin in our lives.”
The bottom line seems to be: “All of us live with disability (to one degree or another).” “We’re all disabled.” And this puts us all together onto one level, happy playing field?
Frankly, to speak in such a way minimizes the experience of those whose lives are difficult and painful in a way ours most definitely are not. Our brothers and sisters with intellectual disabilities have a significantly limited understanding of the things around them. Their lives are highly regulated, to the extent they have little opportunity to make real choices. Many deal with profound loneliness because of what, practically, amounts to being socially ostracized. So let’s not start trying to build bridges to people with disabilities by “admitting” that “We are all disabled.”
Ignoring real and substantive difference is not solidarity. Particularly when that difference touches on areas of pain in a person’s life. (The corollaries to current questions of race seem quite clear.) Of course, we want to (and must) affirm our common humanity, to acknowledge and celebrate each other – and all humans – as bearers of God’s image. It is undeniably true that we all share in and are marked by experiences of corruption, limitation and frustration in this world. However, we are not all impaired in ways that MARK us in stigmatizing or marginalizing ways. We are all different in different ways; but the differences that get a person tagged as “being disabled” literally brand them as being “different” in kind, not just degree.
This “false solidarity” is also expressed by confusing truly “being inclusive” and “not (consciously) excluding.” I’ve been at many churches that say, “We don’t exclude anyone… everybody is welcome here!” But there are no active steps taken to actually “include” people who are “different,” to incorporate such people into the “ordinary” life of the church. Typically, such a congregation will wait until a person with a disability arrives in their midst before beginning to decide how they are going to respond.
The problem is that barriers do exist… they are real and they are present now. There is a difference between not being unjust and “doing justice.” Similarly, an absence of positive concrete steps to “do inclusion” betrays our inner belief that barriers (both physical and attitudinal) that really do exist really don’t exist.
Even if we’ve installed ramps or other “helps” for “the handicapped,” have we ever actually invited people with disabilities to check them out and tell us that they can actually function to provide a “normal” experience for someone who actually is a wheelchair user (not that it simply meets some sort of “code”)?
Remember, becoming truly accessible isn’t about making it “theoretically possible” for a person with a disability to physically get through the doors. It’s about making the “ordinary life” of the Body fully available to all the members of the Body. In Nancy Eiesland’s words, “For persons with disabilities ordinary lives are lived in unconventional bodies.” We won’t be able to provide access to the “ordinary life of the church” if we don’t honestly assess how well we are able to welcome those who (unlike all of us) truly DO “live with disability.”
It’s about more than just about facilities: For many evangelicals, church is “all about the Gospel.” But how is that Gospel spoken, practiced, shared? Typically, as our churches develop, they intellectualize both the acceptance of the Gospel and the performance of the “life of faith” to such an extent that it is NOT open to those whose level of ability (linguistic, emotional, or intellectual) are not on a par with our own.
The “differences” between those of us (perhaps as many as one in five or more) who lead lives framed by the reality of “living with disability” and those of us who do not have disabilities (who some people call “temporarily abled”) is real and undeniable. We can’t afford to minimize or ignore them. But let’s also remember that the “disability” is not (nor is it a direct function of) that “difference.” We’ll talk next time about the true source of the “disabling” effects of “disability.”