“We’ve got a place for people like you.” That was the greeting I received at the door.
If I hadn’t been part of a church weekend away visiting another church many miles from home, I might have turned around and walked (or wheeled) away.
The church building turned out to be reasonably accessible to wheelchair users despite being a Victorian building with pews. Some pews had been removed, and I could sit next to my wife.
Physical access to the building was not the dominant issue: I did not feel welcomed because of the actions and attitudes of the first people I met.
There are, however, ways of encouraging positive first impressions and inclusive relationships, which can then enable people on the margins of church communities to be welcomed and enabled to fully participate in Baptist church community life.
I want to suggest three factors play a part in how we exclude or include and welcome disabled people: language, understanding who disabled people are and theological perspective on disability.
I’ll explore two factors here and the final factor in a second column tomorrow.
- Language and disability
The greeting I received implied a number of things to me: the church had decided where disabled people should sit; there was an emphasis on “we” and “you,” or “people like us” and “people like you,” suggesting that nondisabled people and disabled people are part of two distinct groups, that they are “other” to one another.
This creates a distance between people that hinders the formation of meaningful relationships between disabled and nondisabled people.
This in turn hinders the inclusion of disabled people, or anyone who is different, from inclusion within a church community.
The language we use can reveal and shape our attitudes toward people who are different to the majority, in our churches and in society.
It is rare for disabled people to be referred to by once common terms, such as “handicapped,” “crippled” or “spastic.” I would hope these terms are never used in church or by Christians.
Some debate exists about whether the term “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” should be used but either term is preferable to “handicapped person” and so on.
However, the catch-all phrase, “the disabled,” is not helpful as it assumes disabled people are all the same and different to “the able- bodied” / “the nondisabled.”
This leads to rather general and vague relationships, which are unable to transform people and communities.
We use language in subtle ways, which can either promote or hinder a sense of inclusion of disabled people.
When we assume everyone can stand to sing, can see words and images projected by audiovisual equipment or hear what is being said, we are erecting unnecessary barriers that reinforce that sense of exclusion.
One of my particular “bug-bears” is the request “please stand” to indicate a response to something God is doing.
I do not want to police the language we use, other than language that explicitly divides and excludes others.
However, a greater awareness of the potential impact of the language we use has potential to foster inclusion rather than maintain exclusion.
It has, for instance, become common to hear “Please stand if you are able to” when inviting a congregation to participate in sung worship.
- Understanding who disabled people are
There are broadly three ways of understanding who disabled people are.
First, disabled people can be understood to be people whose bodies or minds prevent them from performing a range of tasks, which are considered to be required to live a “normal” life.
This suggests disabled people need to be cured, fixed or healed in some way so they become “normal” able-bodied people or they need to be provided with equipment and adaptions so they can perform the tasks a “normal” able-bodied person does.
In this approach, the medical condition that means I use a wheelchair is seen as the cause of my disability; the solution is to cure or heal my body or provide a better wheelchair.
The second approach to understanding who disabled people are is to ignore their bodies and mind and the impact of their different embodiment.
This approach understands disability purely in terms of discrimination expressed by society, through attitudes and actions, toward those it considers to be different.
In this approach, my medical condition and use of a wheelchair is seen as irrelevant; my disability is caused by society, which refuses to adapt buildings to be accessible or change the assumptions made about what I cannot do.
A third way is to recognize the experiences of disabled people are shaped both by the nature of their embodiment, the environment and by the attitudes of other people.
This means that although some generalizations can be made, (for instance that wheelchair users need ramps and turning space) that the most appropriate way to include people is to pay attention to particular people in particular contexts.
This approach takes account of the complex web of factors that shape someone’s experience of disability and the relationships between disabled and nondisabled people.
In my own experience, there are some contexts, places and relationships in which I am more disabled and others in which I am less disabled.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Martin Hobgen is a Baptist minister who is currently engaged in doctoral research at Northern Baptist College investigating how friendships between disabled and non-disabled people can facilitate the participatory inclusion of disabled people in Baptist church communities. He is a wheelchair user. Martin is married to Ruth, an accountant and church treasurer, does not have children, and is passionate about the church being an inclusive community.