When it comes to disability, we seem to live in two worlds. On
the one hand, we talk about competition, success, and the
importance of autonomy. On the other hand, we see disability as
being linked to poverty and powerless-ness.
We find it difficult to relate to disabled people, and are
unsure of ourselves when we are with them. We cannot decide whether
they are the heroes of the Paralympics, or villains claiming
benefits to which they have no right. In fact, they are neither of
these. They are us.
The experience of a disabled woman in a wheelchair illustrates
the difficulties we face. She is used to being treated as if she is
only half there. Then, one day, she breaks her leg and has it put
in plaster. Everything changes. People assume that she is a
"normal" person who has just broken her leg. She is one of us. They
treat her as a real person. When the plaster cast comes off, she
returns to being overlooked. She is one of them.
A recent campaign by Scope, "End the Awkward", is based on a new
survey which suggested that, of 2000 people who were questioned, 67
per cent felt uncomfortable talking to disabled people. This is not
surprising, since 43 per cent said that they did not know anyone
who was disabled.
Among 18-to-34-year-olds, 20 per cent said that they had
actually avoided a disabled person because they did not know how to
talk to him or her. Yet 85 per cent of those surveyed believed that
disabled people faced prejudice. How ironic.
One would hope that Christians might be different, since Jesus
spent so much time with disabled people. St Paul claims that our
world-view has been transformed: "We now have a new perspective. We
used to show regard for people based on worldly standards and
interests. No longer" (2 Corinthians 5.16, The Voice
In terms of how they are seen, disabled people often say that
the message "Your body needs fixing" comes over as: "There's
something wrong with you." The former is meant to be a matter of
medical fact, but the latter is about social exclusion.
The rise of the disability movement, with its slogan "Nothing
about us without us" threw down the gauntlet to abled people
everywhere to transform the way in which they saw disabled people.
As a result, we have become more aware of the importance of
inclusion as the basis of participation in society. Action on
disability issues is changing from something we do for
disabled people to something that we do with them. The
disability movement campaigned for legislative change, which
Using the word "abled" rather than "able-bodied" indicates that
the majority of people who do not (for now) have an impairment
benefit from the way in which society is organised. It should be
humbling to realise that our success and independence is largely
due to being abled by a society that disables others.
Abled people do not have to worry about the unfairness of
"back-to-work assessments", be anxious about the changes to
Disability Living Allowance, or worry about how they are going to
cope when the Disabled Students' Allowance is changed.
The Church is called to be a Church for all people. Yet many
disabled people feel that they are seen as unacceptable unless they
are "healed". Their "deficient" bodies must become "normal" ones.
Sadly, when this attitude crops up, they are disabled not only by
society, but by the Church as well.
Thankfully, the Church can also celebrate diversity riotously
and lovingly. The word for "healing" in the New Testament is the
same as that for "salvation": the Church can be transformational
when it draws people into the centre of its life, blesses them, and
affirms them as they are, while remaining open to the way in which
God wishes to work in their lives, whatever that is. It is the
essence of the gospel that you do not have to be "cured" to be
The Church is called to be "enabling" rather than disabling. The
Spirit brings together diverse groups of people into community. It
is part of the extraordinary nature of the Church that we preach
that Christ has made us whole, however unconventional our bodies
Over the past few years, the network Churches For All, which
represents a number of Christian disability organisations, has
usedthe phrase "Enabling Church". Itis the "enabling" that is so
vitalto a Christian approach to disabil-ity.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that he had found
a church that showed what the Church should be like. It was one
where people from the university mixed with people from the street,
and where many disabled people worshipped, including many with
uncontrolled epilepsy, who had seizures during the services. He
revelled in this diverse community, which was brought together by
the enabling Spirit.
Perhaps some people stay away because we want our churches to be
too neat. This is strange. After all, we worship a Christ who is
risen, but still wounded.
Roy McCloughry is National Disability Adviser for theChurch
of England, and Vice-President of Livability. His book
The Enabled Life: Christianity in a disabling world was
recently published by SPCK.
The next Enabling Church conference is on 3 June