Disability inclusion: what can we do as a church?
We continue to exclude disabled people with our words and actions, whether conscious or not. Let's be aware of this - and what we need to change, writes Ruth Wilde
Subtle and unsubtle forms of exclusion
Occasionally supporters of Inclusive Church (who I work for alongside my NBC role) say to me ‘I agree with the other areas you work on, but we need to focus on LGBT+ inclusion, as that is the really big one in the church’. I understand where these people are coming from - there is a huge amount of focus on LGBT+ people in the churches at the moment and so that makes many people feel like it is the only thing we should be working on. I am not saying in any way that it is not important to focus on that, but we must also think about other forms of exclusion in churches and the impact on congregation members.
One of the problems for other marginalised groups is that there is not as much energy or focus on them, as their inclusion is not seen as very important or urgent. That was the case until recently anyway. I think in the last few years, we have begun to think more intersectionally about inclusion. We have also begun to consider the ways in which people are excluded in ways which are less explicit but still have a huge impact on people’s lives. Whether it is explicit or subtle, conscious or unconscious, exclusion and prejudice is still experienced in the same way by the people who are on the receiving end of it.
The truth is that many different people have been marginalised in churches. The way people of colour have been treated and the way disabled people have been treated, for example, has been at times extremely toxic and even violent. Since the death of George Floyd in 2020, there has been a much bigger focus on racial inequality, which is extremely important. It’s a tragedy that it took such a horrific event for people to sit up and take notice. The churches are now waking up to the ingrained racism in our own institutions.
On disability exclusion, the blind theologian, John Hull, wrote that it is no wonder disabled people ended up in the concentration camps with the Jews when the rhetoric against them in society [and the church] is examined. We need to reflect on and change our negative attitudes towards disability.
What is ableism and why does it exist?
Fortunately, churches are now beginning to reflect on how many different groups have been mistreated. More churches are now thinking seriously about how disabled people have been marginalised and made to feel less than human, unimportant, defective, and even sinful. Some of this, of course, has to do with some ‘terrible or disastrous’ theology (to quote Bonhoeffer in the Cost of Discipleship, p. 13); some of it is to do with our upbringing and the ingrained societal attitudes which we’ve consciously and unconsciously absorbed; and some of it is also to do with fear – particularly the fear of our own old age, illness, potential disability, and death.
Ableism – the prejudice against and exclusion of people who are disabled – is bad for both disabled people and non-disabled people. For disabled people, it makes them feel like they are a problem to be fixed, an incomplete person, someone who needs healing – deserving of pity at best and blame at worst. They are seen as simply needs without gifts – burdens on society – when in reality, every one of us has both needs and gifts. This is as true for disabled people as for non-disabled people.
For non-disabled people, ableism in society tells us that the worst possible thing that could happen to us is for us to become ill, disabled, old, etc. We fear disability, illness, old age and death and so are not prepared for it when it – almost inevitably – comes. We are not taught to be ready for the changes which will take place in our life, and to be ‘disability-positive’, and so do not know how to live when the changes arrive.
The church falls into the same sin as society when it comes to disability: the sin of ‘perfection’. It is ingrained in our theology of healing and in our theology of the afterlife. We believe there is a perfect body that we should all strive for and will obtain on death, when the fact is that all of our bodies are different, all of our brains are different, and there is no state of human ‘perfection’. The idea of bodily perfection is oppressive to all those who are seen as imperfect somehow – which is pretty much everyone. Paul, with his ‘thorn’ (considered by many scholars to be a disability), and even Jesus on the cross, with his open wounds which did not disappear after the resurrection, are both ‘imperfect’ according to this theology.
It is understandable and compassionate to wish for people to not be in pain, and becoming disabled can mean a huge change in our lives, which may require adaptation and even grief. However, as the theologian Nancy Eiesland said, ‘the expression of grief is fundamentally different from the pronouncement of tragedy’ (The Disabled God, p. 47). We also need to admit that viewing perfection as a complete absence of all disability, illness and suffering has not been good for disabled people or the rest of society. These things are a part of life – and are in fact a part of the very life of God.
How to better include disabled people
Perhaps there will always be some pain involved in life, but we do not have to accept the kind of suffering which comes from exclusion. It is possible to argue that, in the stories of healing in the gospels, Jesus’ main focus was on the person being healed from the trauma, destitution and loneliness which came from a life of societal exclusion. Disability in the time of Jesus often meant being cruelly cut off from a society obsessed with ritual cleanliness.
Nowadays, we are not always much better. Perhaps we do not talk about things which are clean and unclean, but we certainly continue to exclude disabled people with our words and actions, whether conscious or not.
These are some of the practical things we can do to better include disabled people in church.
1 Do not act out of fear, whether that is an unconscious fear of our own illness and death, the fear of someone who looks or acts different to us, or the fear of saying the wrong thing. Talk to disabled people like the regular people they are and, where appropriate, ask them if something would make church life more accessible for them. Don’t just talk to the person pushing their wheelchair or to their PA/carer. In the majority of cases, disabled people are perfectly able to have a conversation with you and it just hurts to be talked over or about.
2 Be open to learning (but don’t ask about someone’s condition unless they have begun a conversation about it first). Scope recently did a survey of the UK population which showed that a majority of people are afraid of talking to disabled people because they don’t know what to say to them. This only isolates disabled people further. Disabled people are people. If you say something wrong, just be prepared to humbly learn and do better next time. It’s better to try and learn than to never make a mistake and learn nothing.
3 Do not assume disabled people are just passive and not active. Does a person seem like they have leadership skills, are they good at speaking, praying etc? Then invite them to do readings, prayers and encourage them into ministry if appropriate. Disabled people are just as likely to be good at ministry or have leadership gifts as anyone else in the church congregation. God calls everyone; it is the church which puts up barriers. If your church is not accessible for disabled people to participate in the service, maybe this needs to be addressed.
4 Make your church as accessible as possible – for wheelchairs, for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, for neurodiverse people etc – and then advertise your accessibility! Put up an accessibility statement/guide on your church website, for example, so that disabled people know in advance exactly what the church experience will be like when they get there. Here is a good example of an accessibility guide: https://www.accessibilityguides.org/content/manchester-cathedral
5 Begin a conversation around the language of deficit, perfection and healing used in the Bible and in our church traditions, including in our hymns and so on. How might the language we use make disabled people feel? Read some disability theology, like Nancy Eisland and John Hull. This will expand your understanding and make you a better ally to disabled people.
I hope that this article has helped you to better understand a) why and how disabled people are excluded in churches, and b) what we can do about it. We all want to build the kingdom of God together, and this means tearing down barriers which we have built up over the centuries. Many people have been excluded in our churches for a very long time.
Hopefully, once we realise how we have mistreated disabled people in church, we will want to do better and to ‘heal’ the harm and right the wrong we have done to them.
Ruth Wilde is the new Tutor for the Inclusion of Disabled People at Northern Baptist College. She is also the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church and an Associate Tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Learning and Research Centre. You can get in touch with Ruth via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Hull, J. (2003) ‘A Spirituality of Disability: The Christian Heritage as Both Problem and Potential’, Studies in Christian Ethics, 16(2), p. 31.
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