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Survey finds people disabled by others’ attitudes

25 September 2015

DISABLED Christians are not being put forward for leadership positions in churches, which are missing out on “treasure troves of mature spirituality” as a result, a new study suggests.

A survey of disabled Christians and of the Christian parents of disabled children found that the problems they came across in church were not centred around physical barriers, but instead related to problems with people’s attitude to and understanding of disability.

The findings were published in a report, All of Us, by the Christian disability charity Through the Roof. It says that the results showed “a deep longing for genuine friendships, which many disabled people are not finding in churches, even churches who are quite kind and welcoming on Sundays.

One might expect that it would be the lack of physical access or facilities such as large-print hymn books or induction loops that caused people difficulties. But interestingly, these were not, in the main, what the majority of answers focused on. Most people were far more concerned with the attitudes they encountered and the wish for people to understand what their lives are like or what their most pressing needs are.”

Some respondents even told of how they were made to feel that their disability was a result of personal sin — an attitude that led some disabled people to turn away from church altogether.

Every parent of a disabled child who was questioned in the survey agreed with the statement: “I wish churches knew how hard and how lonely it is to bring up a child with a disability, that this is not just a ‘bad day’, this is every day.”

Some respondents urged churches not to ignore it when a family had to take their child out of a service, but to go outside and speak with them; and others wanted people to stop making remarks such as: “You cope so well.”

The “biggest cry” from disabled people, the survey found, was not just to be included on Sundays, but to be able to form genuine friendships within the congregation.

The talents of disabled Christians are also being ignored by leadership teams, the survey says. Many disabled Christians wanted to tell their stories of how their disability had deepened their faith, but were not being given an opportunity to do so, they reported. One speaker told how she had received far fewer invitations to speak since becoming a wheelchair-user.

The report also includes examples of recommended practice from churches that are responding to disabled people in their congregation, such as Waltham Chase Methodist Church, which has adapted the Alpha course for people with learning disabilities, and Riverside Church, Birmingham, which encourages the participation of children with special needs in the life of the church.

The author of the report, Ros Bayes, said: “We acknowledge that God still heals bodies today, and we give him praise whenever he does so. But we are also aware that many people, along with their impairments, experience a depth of inner healing that goes beyond what many abled people experience.

"Sadly, the desire to get disabled people ‘healed’ has often unwittingly come across as ‘We want God to change you,’ with the implication, ‘You’re not acceptable as you are.’

“So we decided to ask people about the positive aspects of their disability, and in particular, its positive impact on their relationship with God. Many of the responses revealed a depth of relationship with God and a wealth of rich spirituality that would certainly qualify these people for leadership roles.”

She called for prominent ministry positions in churches, and at conferences, to be given to people with disabilities.

The survey was carried out between February and April last year, and responses were collected through groups from the Disabled Christian Fellowship, and other disability networks.

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