Making Churches More-able
Dr. Susan Mathew
The impact of Covid -19 can be seen in every realm. It has affected the lifestyle and people are now adapted to the new normal. We are now accustomed to wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping social distance. Education and religious gatherings became online events. Educational institutions had been closed for more than a year and now the government is planning to open them phase by phase.
One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher in developing countries. In India, it is estimated that there is one person with some sort of disability in every ten families. Often disabled persons are discriminated against, exploited, and stigmatized by our society. They are treated as abnormal and sub-human. Covid pandemic has brought enormous challenges to differently-abled people and those who take care of them. In this scenario, how do we understand the mission of the church concerning differently-abled people? How can the church show the love of God and care for those who are with various challenges?
1. What is Disability
World Health Organization defines- “Disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations”.
There are two main models of understanding disability: The Medical model and the Social model.
Under the Medical Model, disabled people are defined by their illness or medical condition. The Medical Model regards disability as an individual problem.
In the medical model, attention is focused on what a person can or cannot physically or functionally do. This model is closest to the common-sense idea that a disability means that someone's body or mind does not work "properly" (or deviates from that of the "normal" human body or mind).
According to the social model. disability is no longer seen as an individual problem but as a social issue caused by policies, practices, attitudes and/or the environment. For example, a wheelchair user may have a physical impairment but it is the absence of a ramp that prevents them from accessing a building. In other words, the disabling factor is the inaccessible environment.
Both these models have their pros and cons. A choice between these models would be too simplistic. Therefore, we need to follow an integral model which combines the best of the two. We need to keep abreast of the current development in medical and health science that would be of enormous help for differently-abled persons on the one hand. On the other, we need to address the problems suggested by the social models. In the integral model, a combination of services by medical experts, therapists, and specialists as well as an active involvement of family and society are of fundamental importance.
2. Challenges faced by People with Disabilities
• Architectural / Structural Barriers: Usually, our buildings are without access to people with challenges. In addition to stairs, we need to have ramps and lifts. Our buildings and public transport should be designed in a way that there would be access to the disabled.
• Attitudinal Barriers: People’s negative attitude is another barrier that hinders the disabled. There are unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have towards disability and towards the disabled. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into people’s consciousness.
• Social Stigma (Lack of Acceptance): There is a stigma attached to disability that views persons with disability as abnormal and sub-human. In other words, the non-disabled people take their experience of the world, thereby marginalizing and excluding the experiences of people with disabilities as not normal.
• Cultural/Religious Prejudices: The most common assumption is that disability is caused by sins of the parents or bad horoscope. Sometimes disability is attributed to demonic influence. There are chances to blame parents and looking down upon them as if they had done wrong.
• Psychological Challenges: The disabled are very much affected psychologically and they may need help to overcome such mental stress. Parents or siblings or like-minded people can counsel and motivate them.
• Financial Burden: The disabled may depend on continuous medicines, therapy and also appliances to carry out daily life, which causes enormous financial burdens to them and their caretakers.
3. The Bible and Disability
The Bible affirms that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. This applies to the entire humanity. That means a 'disabled' person bears the image of God in no lesser measure than the 'abled' person. It affirms the worth and dignity of persons with challenges. We also need to reconstruct biblical anthropology from a disability perspective. The passages such as Lev. 21: 17-24, where there is an apparent restriction placed on persons with disabilities to officiate priestly functions in the sanctuary should not be taken as a permanent basis for discriminating against differently-abled persons. We need to reread this passage in the light of other Old Testament narratives in which there is much positive and affirmative attitude towards persons with challenges. For example, Jacob who became crippled later came to be known as the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. David's act of welcoming Mephibosheth, who was the son of Jonathan, who was crippled, and accepting him as one of the king's sons is to be seen as a positive attitude to persons with challenges (2 Sam. 9:13).
Gospel narratives depict how Jesus loved and accepted persons with challenges. Jesus' act of healing the man who was congenitally blind, (Jn. Ch 9), and healing a woman in Sabbath, who was bent double (Lk 13: 11-16), are examples of how he accepted the dignity of persons with challenges and made a difference in their life. The inclusion of the lame, the blind, and the weak in Jesus' parable of the wedding feast is a reminder of how does Jesusacknowledge the dignity of persons with challenges and accept them graciously as the guests of honour. Nancy Eiesland says,” Our bodies participate in the mission Dei not in spite of our impairments and disabilities, but through them”.
Based on Paul's indications about his own life and struggles, he had experienced some sort of disability (Gal 4:13). From the letters of Paul, we get important insights into the theology of disability: God’s choice of the weak and the foolish over the strong and the wise (1 Cor 1: 27, 28); diversity of the gifts of the spirit (1 Cor 12:4-6); members of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:22ff); affliction as an opportunity to comfort those who are undergoing similar experiences (2 Cor 1:3ff) and his experience of the enabling grace in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). According to Amos Yong, a famous Pentecostal scholar, and theologian, "the church is constituted first and foremost of the weak, not the strong: people with disabilities are thus at the centre rather than at the margins of what it means to be the people of God." Using Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts, Yong asserts that "people with disabilities are therefore ministers empowered by the Spirit of God, each in his or her own specific way," rather than mere beneficiaries of the ministry of others.
4. The Church as an Enabling Community
There are different ways in which the church could fulfil the responsibility towards the disabled. The church building should be disabled-friendly with the provision of ramps, lifts and accessible parking. The church should also express solidarity by supporting the families of PWDs. It is the responsibility of the church to engage in building inclusive community. Worship, Preaching, Sacraments, Ministry in the church need to be organized in such a way that the disabled also feel welcome and part of the body of Christ. The spiritual gifts of the disabled should be acknowledged. Praying with, praying for and praying by them can also make significant change in the community. According to Nick Vujicic, “With every disability you have, you are blessed with more than enough abilities to overcome your challenges”.
Therefore, the Church should work to foster and maintain positive attitudes toward people with disabilities.The Church has to encourage the self-advocacy and self-determination and full participation of people with disabilities in congregational life.
The Church must engage in pre-cautionary activities to check pre-natal, congenital disability through awareness campaigns.Meaningful rehabilitation must be planned for them.
Other practical suggestionsare special programs for the differently-abled, organizing community events, visiting families, celebrating disability Sunday (world disability day Dec 3), spending few hours/one day with PWDs and letting the parents go for outing/shopping, extending financial support, encourage church members especially youngsters to study courses related to disability and work in this sector, forming a group of volunteers to help PWDs.
5. Deepti Special School:
A personal story of ministry towards differently-abled children and their families
The story of Deepti is the story of a child who was born with special needs, his parents, and siblings. It soon became the story of many children, who face different challenges and their families. It is a story that continues to grow, inspiring and motivating others to find the meaning of life amidst adversities and challenges.
When God gave us our youngest son Jyothish eighteen years ago, a child with special needs, we were oblivious about His purpose. Jyothish was born prematurely. His milestones were delayed. Later doctors diagnosed his condition as cerebral palsy. That is the impairment of the brain, which would affect his body movement. It was like a bolt from the blue. We never expected our child to be disabled, as we knew for sure he is a promised child of God. We went through a lot of hardship and challenges in bringing him up. We began to pray expecting miraculous healing for him. But God said that he would heal him stage by stage and that exactly happened. He walked for the first time just before he reached three years. The challenges and hardships we have been facing in bringing up our child who has special needs prompted us to think of other children who have similar condition and their parents in order to reach out to them with love to care and encourage them. That lead to the birth of Deepti.
God enabled us to begin Deepti Centre for Children with Cerebral Palsy in 2009 to provide free physiotherapy for children and in 2010 we began Deepti Special School. Now we are privileged to serve180 children with various challenges such as Cerebral Palsy,Autism, Downs Syndrome, learning difficulty, Visually challenged, and mentally challenged situations. In addition to special education, Deepti provides physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioural therapy, creative play, training in sports, music, and vocational activities. We support their parents, by giving them counselling, vocational training, and career guidance. Deepti Special School is committed to be the most preferred special education centre through professional excellence, child centricity, and passionate service. The purpose of Deepti is to spread the light of God's love to others, especially those who are vulnerable, neglected, and destined to be at the periphery of society.
We do everything out of the love of God which he has lavished on us. This love reaches out to others, especially those who are weak and vulnerable. We have seen that love can heal and transform lives. Love is a common language, that every person can understand. We also came to realize that love in its pure form can be seen in the lives of these innocent children, who face different challenges in life. God has given them a unique gift of love that itself can transform our perspectives. Let’s make a difference in the experience of people with challenges, with the transforming love of God. “The only thing being worse than being blind is having sight and no vision” (Hellen Keller).