What we believe about God and His creation of humanity is fundamental to how we treat others, including how we advocate for people with disabilities. Human dignity goes back to Genesis 1:26-27, when God created man and woman in His likeness. Sin changed human hearts and ushered in evil, sickness, and disease, but it did not change the fact that humans are made in the image of God. We know this because even after the Fall, when God tells the Israelites that murder is wrong, He says that it is wrong because “God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Mankind was created in God’s image before sin entered the world, and all men and women remain image-bearers today.
This includes every person born with disabilities. Sadly many act as though disability—intellectual or physical—is a problem akin to a disease we must get rid of. While the majority of Americans express tolerance toward and acceptance of those with disabilities, most do little to enter intentional caring relationships with them. Jesus will have none of that. His heart for those with disabilities is clear. He had a deep compassion for them, and they were the recipients of many of His miracles. He saw them when no one else did and affirmed their dignity when society had pushed them to the margins (John 5:2-9, Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 2:1-12). God decides what makes a life worth living. He says every human has the ability to reflect His image in a unique way—including those with disabilities. The real tragedy is that our society cannot see that truth clearly.
As we are shaped by the belief in God’s gift of dignity and love for all humanity, it will affect how we view others and remind them of their dignity. God has shown us, through the life and death of His Son, what a culture of love looks like. It is up to His children to bring that culture of love to life, for the flourishing of us all.
WHERE THE CHURCH STANDS TODAY
In many cases, the church has failed to model Jesus in this way. Because American Christians live in a culture that celebrates (and rewards) efficiency and productivity, we too often believe that our value, worth, and dignity are rooted in our work and merit. Because we see suffering and disability as “inefficiencies”—problems to be fixed or eradicated—we miss out on God’s greater purposes.
Little research has been done on the relationship between churches and people with disabilities, but the data that has been made available is sobering. A 2013 study by the University of Kentucky’s Dr. Melinda Ault and her colleagues found that less than half (43%) of parents of children with disabilities felt that their church family was “supportive” of their child. This lack of support for people with disabilities not only affected the children with disabilities but the parents who cared for them – more than 55% of these adults said they had been unable to participate in some kind of religious activity because of their child. In some cases, the lack of support was so disappointing that families had to leave altogether – nearly one-third of survey respondents said that they’d had to leave at least one church in the past because leadership failed to include or welcome their child.
Christians should not be satisfied with these numbers. They stand as evidence of our failure to care for these families as we should. They illustrate just how deeply we’ve succumbed to the American standard for “human value.” They expose the extent to which we’ve adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and selfishly avoided building difficult relationships with those that appear to have nothing to offer us in return. The reality uncovered by these statistics should wake us from our slumber, convict us of our complacency, and move us to reassess the ways in which we learn from and minister to those around us personally affected by disabilities.
In 2017, Britain's The Guardian newspaper asked seven people living with disabilities to keep a diary for a month recording what it was like to live with a disability. “The Disability Diaries” provided much-needed insight into the everyday challenges a person with a disability experiences. The personal narratives shed light on difficulties that few, if any, able-bodied person ever considers. The diary-keepers described the hurdles people with disabilities needed to clear just to complete daily tasks like meeting up with friends, taking public transportation, or communicating with co-workers. Several themes were present in their entries, but the message was clear – people with disabilities often feel unseen, unknown, and undervalued.
WHAT THE CHURCH CAN DO
It doesn’t have to be this way. Animated by a gospel of sacrificial love and led by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are uniquely situated to offer programs for people with disabilities and to recognize, empower, and honor the lives of those that live with debilitating conditions. Though there are a million ways to go about affirming the image of God in these brothers and sisters, we can begin by reevaluating the language we use, educating ourselves on the diseases and challenges they face, making seats for them at our tables of influence, and building the support systems they deserve to flourish on the peaks as well as in life’s darkest valleys.
In His goodness and kindness, God gave us the ability to communicate with one another. From spoken words to symbols on pages, language allows us to build others up or tear them down. As Dr. Joan Blaska puts it, language “is a reflection of how people in a society see each other.” It is one of the “powerful tools by which a civilization perpetuates its values,” another writes, “both its proudest achievements and its most crippling prejudices.”
When the United Nations asked Frank Stephens, an advocate for people with disabilities, to educate them on how to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome, he responded with a very simple answer. “The key is right there in my opening paragraph,” he said. “It begins with I am a man. See me as a human being, not a birth defect, not a syndrome.” Historically, disability has been the primary identifier of a person. To change the stigma of identifying a person based on what they are not able to do, we must first recognize their personhood and keep that as the main focus throughout the discussion. Our language matters, and it should reveal what we believe about God and those He so lovingly made in His image.
The Bible calls Christians to love with every thought that have and every word they utter. In fact, we will be called to answer for every careless word we speak when we get to Heaven (Matthew 12:36). Paul implores his readers to reject “foul or abusive language” and instead to “let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians 4:29 NLT). Sometimes, we aren’t even aware our words are coming received as belittling or hurtful. Below are a few helpful questions we can ask ourselves as we are communicating with people with disabilities:
- Are the words I’m using people-centric or disability-centric? Am I defining another person by their disability (e.g., “the disabled” vs. “people with disabilities”)?
- Even if I’m not talking about people with disabilities directly, am I using language that perpetuates negative stereotypes about them (e.g., “that’s retarded” when referring to something that is dumb or stupid)?
- Does the way I talk about people with disabilities suggest they’re “abnormal”? Do I talk about people without disabilities as “normal” or “healthy”?
Education, by definition, is insight and knowledge. We must take the initiative on learning about disability so that we can know how to best create a world of inclusion for all people.
We must begin by trying to understand the challenges as well as the skill sets of those with disabilities. The community of people with disabilities is not monolithic. Disabilities are unique, and each person experiences them differently. Church leaders and lay members should intentionally set aside time to learn about the disabilities affecting congregants within their church. This first step is critical and should be done before asking members of the disabled community about their challenges firsthand. Asking people with disabilities to describe their condition and the emotions they experience may needlessly force someone to relive trauma or pain. Those without physical disabilities owe it to this community to try to understand the basic challenges posed by disabilities first.
After earnestly seeking to understand, we need to train and equip leaders to care for this community well. While members of your church may truly desire to care for those with disabilities, they may do more harm than good if they don’t know how to do it. Bring in members of the disabled community and those who serve them to teach your team best practices. Also think about the spaces and environments your church creates with those with disabilities in mind. The space you create says something about the people welcomed.
God gave humans the ability to get creative, innovate, and shape ideas for the benefit of others. In this sense, people with disabilities are no different than their able-bodied peers. In fact, they often have the ability to see solutions to problems people without that disability would never be able to imagine. Believers without disabilities should never assume that they have more to offer the Kingdom of God than their other brothers and sisters with disabilities. In Romans 12, Paul reminds us that every Christian brings something different to the table, a skill set or perspective that no other believer can substitute. Just as each of us have bodies made up of different parts, he says, “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. WE have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (4-6a NIV).
In his book Disability and the Gospel, Michael Beates observes how much churches lose when they neglect to empower or give voice to believers with disabilities:
In our day in the West, people with disabilities are not left to beg outside religious sites where they might remind people of the brokenness of humanity. Rather, such people are carefully hidden in homes and care facilities, seldom ever gracing temples and churches with their presence…this absence deprives the church of gifts that only those with disability can bring to the body of Christ (p.60-61).
Churches should provide opportunities for those with disabilities to serve and lead. Church members with disabilities are not second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. He has given them unique gifts and talents to be used to bless others around them. One disability rights advocate once stated that “losing my hearing was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. I get to experience the world in a unique way. And I believe that...is what’s going to help us make and design a better world for everyone…” When people with disabilities are given a platform in our churches, they are able to share their stories, normalize their way of life, and add incredible vibrancy to the community of God’s people.
4. SYSTEMS OF CARE
Parents and caregivers of people with disability have the great joy and honor of living life closely to someone with such a unique perspective. They are parents who want to celebrate the big wins of their children’s lives. They, too, are people first before they are the parents of a person with a disability. There is also the reality that families of a person with disability experience extreme challenges. These families are often isolated, alone, misunderstood, or forgotten. As the body of Christ, we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The burden these families face is not the person of the disability, but the burdens of financial strain, ongoing health issues, long-term sacrifice, and false assumptions about them or their children.
As the church, we must build communities of care. People affected by disabilities usually need encouragement and support throughout the week, not just on Sundays. To best meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, our churches should build support groups and partner with nonprofits to make sure this community is receiving what they require to flourish. The body of Christ must be a place where such families find relief, not further rejection. We must take on the posture of our Lord Jesus—who gave up His life for others—rather than the posture of the world, which says suffering is too much of an inconvenience. It is time that we, as the church, repent for the ways we have continued to ignore the pain of our disabled brothers and sisters and their families. We can begin this process by connecting with those living with disabilities in our congregations, developing greater insight into the needs of the church, and building a leadership team to advise on the best next steps.
WE ALL NEED THE GREAT PHYSICIAN
Any action step we take, whether large or small, should be bathed in Christian humility. Everyone's suffering in this life will look different, but we all suffer from a sin nature. The disease of sin is the worst of them all—the symptoms are not just physical death but eternal death. This is why Christ came to die for us: not as an advocate for those who believe they are righteous but as a physician for the sick and broken (Mark 2:7). As we advocate for those with disability through language, education, access, and systems of care, we write a different narrative for the world to see. We show how we need all types of people—those with disabilities included—in our families and communities. We love, respect, and celebrate them as the beloved sons and daughters of God they are. By entering discomfort, abandoning preferences, crucifying our pride, and investing in others sacrificially, we give the world a glimpse of life inside inside a gospel community forever tied together by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17).
The word “mercy” is thrown around a lot. It’s seen by many as just another church-y word, similar to grace, compassion, or forgiveness. When we think about the word mercy, images of a courtroom may come to mind. We think of people begging for mercy or forgiveness for something that they’ve...Learn More