A Study in Irony: Disability and the Church

Hello, readers. It’s Sunday in my corner of the world, so today’s post focuses on the realities of the relationship between disability and faith. Some of this is personal, and I hope it will encourage you, especially if you too have a disability. Some of it isn’t pretty. But if you’ve stuck with my posts this long, you’ve probably got a strong enough stomach to handle that, right? Right.

As you may know from my profile, I’m a Christ-follower, so I’ll start with an examination of Jesus’ relationships with people with disabilities. Remember, this was first-century Israel, when “special” services didn’t exist (and as you know from my previous post, that may have been a good thing). What did exist was rampant negative stigma. If you were disabled, either you’d done something wrong or your parents had (see John 9). You were unclean, unworthy to worship, work, and live in the same company of others. You were even dangerous, because what if others ended up cursed, thanks to your or your family’s sins? So when Jesus hung out with, talked to, and healed people with disabilities, no wonder it was a shock.

But I wonder–was Jesus’ main purpose to heal the disability itself? When He did, it was always considered a miracle. And indeed, many disabilities exist today which only God could heal. The problem, I think, is the way Christians–Christ-followers–and others, look at these interactions. They consider the cure the most important aspect of Jesus’ ministry to people with disabilities. But was it? I propose it was not. I propose that Jesus did perform these miracles so others would believe. I propose He healed people with disabilities in part because their community was unwilling to accept them as they were (which, I think He knew, was the community’s problem). Yet I also propose that when Jesus healed the disability in question, His real purpose was to heal that person’s heart and soul. To say, in effect, “You are clean. You are worthy. I allowed you to be made this way, and there’s nothing wrong with you. I love you, and you can believe in and trust me with your whole life.” Also note, contrary to the beliefs of some, Jesus did not heal every person with a disability he ever encountered. Only those who asked–who reached out in belief.

This gives rise to a new question. Why does the church persist in seeing people with disabilities as its suffering lambs? Its walking wounded, its “special friends?” Jesus didn’t single them out like that, and contrary to belief, His main purpose was not cure or rehabilitation (except, perhaps, rehabilitation of the soul, which everyone needs, disability or not). So then why do churches often segregate its congregants with disabilities?

The church I went to as an adolescent was warm, open, and friendly. I was not shuttled into a segregated classroom because of my CP’s mildness. But I saw what happened to other people with disabilities in the church–adults with severe physical or mental disabilities. They were placed in the “Special Friends” classroom (yes, that was its real name), and rarely seen outside of it, or without aides. The Special Friends classroom’s segregation, in fact, made me want to avoid these people because I felt, deep inside, even as a ten-year-old, that if I associated with them too closely, others would see me as on their level, with a need to be segregated.

The church I attend now is also a friendly church, and again, people with disabilities attend it. The largest population of these, that I have seen, are a group of children with cognitive and mental disabilities (autism and the like), and a group of adult men with mental and developmental disabilities, who live in a local group home.

I taught Sunday school for six months in this church. I saw the children with disabilities every Sunday in our large group meeting (K-5th grade). At the end of the large group meeting, these children attended the All-Stars Class. According to the lesson packets I received every week, these children’s lessons were the same ones used for kindergartners.

The adult men have it a little better. From what I have observed, they are not required to sit in the sanctuary with a “group home group”–they choose their own seats. If they have to get up during the service, fine. If they rock back and forth, fine. But this is just what I have observed; they may in fact be sitting near aides. And rarely do any of the church members outside the group home seem to see them as anything but “special.”

I am not in denial here. I realize that cognitive and developmental disabilities often mean curriculums need to be modified. And I realize that these disabilities may mean the person with them is not ready to cope with some of the heavier aspects of church, such as graphic descriptions of the crucifixion or hell. But I said “might” and “may.” Has anyone ever asked these people what they truly understand about their faith? What they truly want to do and talk about in church? Has anyone ever considered the children in the All-Stars class, who are in their preteens or teens, may want to be with other kids their age in Sunday school? After all, if we stopped harping about a sixteen-year-old with the “mental age” of a ten-year-old, and let her be with other girls her age, couldn’t she learn about being sixteen?

But no. The church seems to remain entrenched in “special.” Some churches are even so entrenched that, in their books and on their printouts, the activities for people with “special needs” are marked with the icon of an eye with a tear coming out of it! Holy flipping crumb, people. Would you like it if that were your icon? If people assumed you or your families were in a state of perpetual grief, as if your life had already ended and meant nothing while being lived? And as I mentioned, the treatment of people with more severe disabilities from the church can often make those of us with mild disabilities feel uncomfortable, guilty, or even ashamed. Not because we disdain those people, but because we recognize: if it’s so easy to segregate them and treat them like special pets, what does that say about how people talk and think about me behind my back?

I don’t presume to read God’s mind. But I will propose that, if Jesus came to our churches and saw this segregation, He would be disappointed. (I can’t speak for other religious figureheads since I don’t practice other faiths, but perhaps Mohammed, Buddha, and others would feel the same way. If anyone would care to weigh in, do).

My faith has often been the one thing keeping me sane as I have fought my way out of the rules, acronyms, expectations, and “grading downs” of Disability World. God wrote to His people in captivity that He promised them “a hope and a future”–a verse I claimed as my life verse, especially at times when I felt the clutch of fear that the segregation of others in our world meant a fast-approaching future in a “home” where I was not allowed to go where I wanted without signing out, where my free time was policed, and my diet restricted, among other things. (I once heard the well-meaning head of the men’s group home I mentioned tell a resident he could not have a brownie at a social function because he was overweight. If other overweight people can choose to eat an extra brownie, why is that choice taken from those with disabilities?)

My relationship with Jesus has its ups and downs. I’ve even expressed deep, cold anger with Him over CP-related issues. But the fact that He has a plan for me, and a plan for others with disabilities, no matter how severe, is an encouragement. My recent revelation that He may in fact not be on the side of the “special” segregators–as I originally thought–has further elevated my spirit.

Please stay tuned for more personal faith details–and be filled with hope today. No matter what your church, authorities, or “aides” may have told you, God loves you, has a good future for you, and will fight for you.


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