When Churches Discuss Disability Without Disabled People

Yesterday, a pastor friend sent me the link to a podcast from the Canadian Council of Churches (The fourth episode is the relevant one if you care to listen). The most recent episode deals with disability inclusion in Christian churches. They wanted my perspective on the treatment of disability. While I already shared some scaled down thoughts with them directly, I really feel it’s important to look at this more in depth in a public forum because religion plays such a huge part in the lives of billions of people and arguably particularly for disabled people, we are affected whether we want to be or not.

As I told my friend, ideologically most of the ideas are generic. A few might actually be considered progressive. What the ideas espoused in the podcast fail to do is challenge or look for meaningful solutions. There’s a lot of talk about moving beyond inclusion to making disabled people feel like they belong. Which is great but seeing as inclusion is still an issue for many and the men interviewed failed to deal with reasons for why exclusion and alienation happen, it’s all rather hollow.

The two men interviewed were a Catholic and a Coptic Priest. The interdenominational discussion is nice. It’s also nice that the issue of disability inclusion is treated as a Christian issue and not an issue for certain denominations.

The first real issue is that both of the men are nondisabled and that there seems to have been little effort to really include the voices of actual disabled people. This leaves an overly optimistic picture as all of the anecdotes about inclusive initiatives come from nondisabled people. It comes across as extremely rose tinted.

Both men mention that they have heard from disabled people that they feel excluded or alienated but the underlying reasons for this is never looked at.

This is one of the biggest problems with the interview. It talks a big game about inclusion and belonging but actively avoids a meaningful discussion about why disabled people are excluded.

The problems of religious inclusion for disabled people go beyond initiatives to hire more disabled people or make sure they are on boards. Though those are good and necessary steps.

In order for physical inclusion to move toward social inclusion and true belonging, churches need to actively acknowledge, churches discriminatory pasts and presents.

Dr. Thomas Hentrich, the Roman Catholic interviewee illustrates this when he shares a story about his disabled son being refused his first communion on the grounds that the church was concerned the boy couldn’t understand its significance.

Hentrich actively refused to acknowledge this exclusion as discriminatory. Framing it instead as just unfortunate and hurtful. I’m not sure what definition of discrimination he’s working from or if he thinks that a theological justification for the action shields it from being discriminatory. Either way, I have to disagree.

Theological justifications for treating disabled congregants need to at the very least be fully laid out and studied and then preferably actively challenged.

Hentrich’s solution of having his son receive communion at a Coptic church instead is also problematic as an example of a reasonable response for several reasons.

1.) By offering this as a simple solution it ignores the harm of the initial exclusion

2.) It ignores that many people see denominations as separate religions, so many people would not be comfortable simply leaving not just a particular church but a denomination.

  • This then could lead those individuals to feel unwelcome and possibly disconnected from God.

3.) Disabled people who want to be part of a faith community should not have to shop around for one that is going to treat them well.

The only other problematic belief that was actually mentioned and again not dealt with is the idea that many Christians hold that disability is a punishment either on the parents or the disabled person themself.

The idea was underplayed and again there was no discussion of the impact this still reasonably widespread idea has not only on disabled Christians but also on nonChristian disabled people who come into contact with people who hold those beliefs.

Instead of actually dealing with it, the podcast brushes it off with one interviewee basically writing off people who believe it as not understanding scripture, suggesting that Christ actually said the opposite and was progressive in his views on disability.

I assume they were talking about this story from John Chapter 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

While it is true that it actively counters concepts of disability & sin, it’s not hugely progressive and leads to two other issues that disabled people face in Christian churches. The idea of disability as symbol (often interpreted as object of charity) and faith healing.

So verse 3 Jesus says “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him“. This can be used to mean the miracles performed by Jesus himself but can also be taken to mean that disabled people are to acted upon charitably (which separates them out from others as unequal) or simply as symbols to other people of what could be and that others should be grateful.

Allow me to share a quote about Tiny Tim (Yes, the Dicken’s character) on his disability and his place in the church “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.””*

For a less historical & literary example about how disabled people theologize their disability as symbolic for others see the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada.

Now remember that Jesus may have denied that disability was caused by sin but he didn’t follow that up with “go forth and create an accessible society that includes and welcomes disabled people”. The above story is just one of many where he heals disability. This is followed by the Apostles healing people and a long history of healing by saints. Disability is very much framed as bad and that people are better off without it.

Which brings us to historical and contemporary beliefs in faith healing.

I don’t actually know a single disabled person personally, who hasn’t had someone pray that they be healed. These encounters don’t always happen in the church. The first time it happened to me, I was walking home from school.

These encounters often also include judgemental statements about people’s levels of faith along the lines of “if you believed enough you wouldn’t be disabled. God would have healed you”.

For the faithful this is a judgement on both their faith and their value. When it happens to nonChristians it just breeds animosity towards Christianity.

Saying that the bible doesn’t support the idea that disability is sinful but then saying that it is progressive shows the same selective reading that people who do link it to sin or at least a person’s level of faith. It also just ignores the reality of people who do think that way and the impact they have on disabled people not only in their churches but in society at large. For an account from an actual disabled person on this read Carly Findlay Morrow on her experiences.

Creating inclusive churches is going to take more than just inclusion initiatives. While it is nice to hear about things like the tradition in Coptic churches of hiring blind cantors and a general desire to get more disabled people involved in the church. This work cannot be done effectively or in a meaningful way if those churches are unwilling to accept and acknowledge that on both church & cultural levels they have created an alienating environment for disabled people.

In recent years there has been some work done on creating a theology of disability but unfortunately like this podcast it is far to often the work of nondisabled theologians.**

Churches need to be willing to be held accountable for their histories of harmful theologies and practices. They also need to be accountable for how these things are still happening.

They also need to be willing to acknowledge and accept that other churches may have even more harmful practices. People affected by these harmful ideas are not going to be comforted by flippant dismissals of biblical understanding. Those ideas need to be actively challenged even if you don’t share them. The fact that they exist and cause real harm needs to be actively dealt with, not glossed over.

Also in terms of physical inclusion, churches need to practice what they preach and try not to have podcasts about disability inclusion that don’t actually include disabled people.

There also needs to be more discussion of not only including disabled people at the church level but encouraging them to enter the ministry. Without disabled people at all levels of the church, true inclusion and belonging of disabled church members cannot happen.

Failure to include actual disabled voices and deal with the ideological issues of the church and disability, the belonging advocated for in that podcast cannot truly occur.




*Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Wisehouse Classics – with original illustrations) (p. 37). Wisehouse. Kindle Edition. find it here.

**an example of this is Thomas E Reynolds’ Vulnerable Communion

4 thoughts on “When Churches Discuss Disability Without Disabled People

  1. A good place for religious institutions to start might be looking at who can even get in the door and stay through the service. I can only speak from my own Christian background, but physical and sensory accessibility are awful in many sanctuaries.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Awesome post, as usual. ^_^ Timely, too– you read my mind, I’ve been thinking on this stuff lately. I was wondering if you might comment/elaborate on a sub-topic, which requires a little context.

    I got into a conversation with a Christian friend the other day about this very subject (disability + Christianity), and they were surprised to hear of the origins of the expression ‘touched,’ or ‘touched in the head.’ I did a bit of research to confirm whether or not my understanding (as conveyed through family, friends, school, etc.) of this expression was at all accurate. Apparently the expression is indeed from that ‘Christian’ expression used to speak ‘kindly’ of (especially cognitively) disabled and/or Mad people, ‘touched by God,’ sometimes also ‘touched by an angel.’ Evidently after the WWII the expression became much more common and much more slangy/derogatory (that is, not intended kindly), used widely to refer to anyone seen as ‘insane,’ ‘mentally deficient,’ etc.

    However, in its original use and even sometimes still in the present, ‘touched’ is used in a way to convey another Christian view of disability, which sees disabled people not as a trial for nondisabled people (a test of faith kinda thing), but as a blessing. Disabled and Mad people are romanticized as being more pure, or closer to God.

    It’s easy for me as a Mad person to say why this is an intolerable view of Mad and disabled people, but I was hoping maybe you could offer your insights on this subject?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for your detailed response, Kim. I am aware that in a 30 minute unscripted live podcast, we could not touch on all aspects of this important topic that has been dormant in many churches for far too long. The idea was to engage the 25 denominations that make up the CCC in a dialogue with themselves and each other on how to remedy this situation. I would also like to know your pastor friend’s opinion on that, since he/she was paying attention to the topic.
    I agree with you that change cannot happen without the input of people with disabilities and I believe this was made clear during the podcast. As for a Theology of disability from a disability’s perspective, you might want to get in touch with the folks at Disability and Jesus in the UK who are currently writing such a book.
    As well, a historical approach is useful to understand where negative stigmas originated, and Christianity has to a large degree stuck with ancient beliefs, despite periodical efforts to improve attitudes.

    Just FYI, the Coptic Catholic Church is a different rite within the Catholic Church and separate from the Coptic Orthodox Church (trust me on this one), so no we did not change denominations.
    And whether someone feels discriminated against or not is still that person’s prerogative. Belonging to a church community does not necessarily hinge on liturgical questions. Just ask your pastor friend.

    Hope we can continue this conversation some other time.



  4. Hello Kim, I only saw yesterday that you did respond to my previous comment via Twitter.
    While I cannot speak on behalf of the Canadian Council of Churches, there seems to be a misconception of what the CCC can do for the inclusion and belonging of people with disabilities and what not. The CCC can only advocate this important cause to its member churches, the final implementation lies with each denominations’ leadership and individual congregations. And this is where indeed a lot of work needs to be done. The spectrum goes from just adhering to AODA regulations to actively promoting inclusion in their mission statements.

    You may have a point that an action still objectively constitutes discrimination even though the person did not feel discriminated against at the time. The incident I was referring to took place over 20 years ago, when this issue was on no one’s radar yet.

    Well, if you are interested in finding out what some churches are actually doing for inclusion and belonging, follow #LTTF2016 for the Life to the Full conference taking place this weekend in Niagara Falls.



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