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Held back by attitudes, not by physical limits

30 May 2014

Disabled people face exclusion from society, but the Church is called to include and enable all, says Roy McCloughry

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 Bible).

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 eventually came.

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 whole.

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 are.

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 (www.churchesforall.org.uk/enabling church).

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