Designing “to the norm” doesn’t feel like design at all. Universal Design and the Church: 2

If you are in church or outreach ministry of any kind, you’re doing “design work” (whether or not you’re paid for it or even are aware of it). Anything you do, any gathering you organize, any presentation you make that is not fully scripted in advance inescapably involves designing spaces, interactions, environments (and, perhaps, even building) to achieve your particular ends.designer

However, it also seems inescapable that we gravitate toward a “standard design” approach. It’s certainly what we see modeled for us both in the church and the marketplace. “Standard design” means designing “for the norm.” You set up a building, a space, a meeting, a product, so that it is “normally” usable for “normal people” – nothing “special,’ nothing fancy. Just regular stuff for regular folks… no need to overthink that, right? It’s because this sort of “designing to the norm” is both so sensible and, seemingly, practical that we don’t even see it as being “design” – it seems more like “using common sense” or “being realistic.”

“Designing to the norm” does come quite naturally– and the more that our congregations and gatherings reflect a “look” that is more homogenous than diverse (I’m thinking here in terms of ability, but we could talk about ethnicity or economic class or dogma as well), the more likely it is that we will take a “standard design” approach. In other words, if all of “us” look, read, speak, act, spend pretty much like “me,” then, when we reach out to “them,” we are already predisposed to assume that – whoever they are – they will (or should) be more or less “like us” in most respects.


Plus, we’ve cut our teeth on practical utilitarian thinking and practice. We evaluate “return on (ministry) investment,” which leads us toward pragmatism and measures of effectiveness or efficiency. We seek to reach the most people with the best spiritual goods and services with the least unit effort/cost. One side effect of this approach is that it inevitably breaks people down into categories of “hard” and “easy”: easy being more like us, meaning including them requires considerably less of us.

I’m sorry, but knowing God’s heart in calling out a single people for himself from all the world, this lack of full inclusion of people with disabilities in so many of our churches, the lack of access to community or even friendship that is typically reported by many of our disabled neighbors reflects a serious lack of theological imagination.

goldfish marginalizationWhat is it that makes strangers “strange”? It’s their difference from “us.” The process of marginalization entails an element of “normalization” for those “on the inside.” (As Peter Gabriel sings hauntingly in a classic song, “How can we be in, if there is no outside?”) It comes from privileging our own experience, our own status. We normalize the privilege of being “abled,” and then no longer see it as privilege. This is where “ableism” originates: “we” establish “ourselves” as “normal” – and having done so, what works (for “us”) works. Period. “Others” are not in view, because they are, by definition, “exceptions.” We can become quite invested in keeping those “others” out of view, and we allow or perpetuate structures that keep us from truly engaging others.

disability wheelchair silhouette

One example – walking up a few steps to get into a building. As my friend Tanya, who uses a wheelchair, says, “For most people in town, it’s nothing, it’s not even noticed. For me, it’s like someone put Mount Everest right in front of me.”

But God is always on the move, He is always inviting more people to the banquet table Jesus has set. So what happens when we encounter people or situations that fall outside that “norm” for which we have designed our programs or buildings or environments?

DISABILITY mural hyatt moore luke 14

At our best, we decide to make “accommodations” to make the inaccessible accessible. This brings about good not only for those who have been previously excluded, but also to the entire body, which now more visibly reflects its true identity.

However, such changes come at a cost. Dollars and cents to actually pay for concrete changes. But change can bring confusion, even frustration. Those who have  benefited from a prior position of privilege (knowingly or otherwise) may feel slighted or resentful over what they feel they have “lost.” Actually bringing diverse people together can engender fear or suspicion… maybe even shame.

2017-10 IMG_9491 jim bys wheelchair pastor (Large)
At the Beyond Suffering conference on disability ministry: Luts’k, Ukraine October 2017

So some fellowships just decide the costs are prohibitive… they’re not worth making: after all, this place already functions just fine for “most” people… for all of “us,” actually. So we turn away, and over time, ableism gains a foothold. Ableism is as deeply entrenched and as difficult to uproot and unlearn as are racism and sexism. Many of us do not want to think or talk about disability. Some of us are already actively denying our own hidden impairments, including hearing or vision loss, learning difficulties, frailty, or pain. And we don’t know what resources are or could be available, or how to ask for them, or whom to ask.

But the Great Commission on which we have been sent is not about finding the most efficient means for reaching the most people with the (most important parts of the) gospel. It’s about taking the good news to everyone – and loving one another in the process.

That’s why we have to do better.

(This post is part of a series on Universal Design and the church, which begins here.)

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