Disability and the Church

Rev Rachel Wilson spoke at Erith Deanery Synod recently on issues around Disbility and the Church. Her text along with various tips and suggestions are included here. It is well worth a read.


Disability and the Church – Talk given to Erith Deanery Synod 10 June 2015

Thank you for inviting me to share some of my thoughts on this topic with you – it’s a pleasure to be here and I hope that what I say will be useful, as well as generating some discussion.  I’m happy to take questions at the end and since this talk is intended to help you increase your understanding around issues of disability, please feel free to ask anything you might need to, even if it seems trivial – if it matters to you enough to ask it, it’s not trivial.

The perspective from which I speak is only one perspective, though I trust it is an informed one.  It is intended only to be a guide and to open up to you new ways of thinking about disability that you may not have considered before; when it comes to disabled individuals themselves, they are always the final word on what is appropriate in their own circumstances, so ask them and be guided what they say.

I could devote the time I have for this talk almost entirely to a “how to” guide for welcoming disabled people in church, to addressing some of the practical things that might make churches more accessible and more welcoming for people with a range of impairments.  That is important and I will address myself to it; I’ve prepared a short information sheet for the purpose, but in my view, if the church is ever really to come to terms with the whole question of disability, a far more fundamental question to ask is, “What is the place of disability in God’s order and how can the church honour that?”  For if we explore and understand something of that, the answers to the practical questions are much more likely to arise as a natural expression of what we have come to understand and therefore be truly “rooted and grounded” in our practice.

When it comes to issues of disability, the church, historically, has had at best an ambivalent attitude and at worst has been instrumental in perpetuating fear and misunderstanding.  This though has not been wilful; it is if you like, that the church has literally not known what to think about the whole question.  In trying to reach a conclusion on the subject, neither scripture, nor prevailing social attitudes have been entirely helpful.

Take for example, Leviticus 21 17-23 on the subject of priests

Then the Lord said to Moses, 17 “Give the following instructions to Aaron: In all future generations, none of your descendants who has any defect will qualify to offer food to his God. 18 No one who has a defect qualifies, whether he is blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, 19 or has a broken foot or arm, 20 or is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or has a defective eye, or skin sores or scabs, or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron who has a defect may approach the altar to present special gifts to the Lord. Since he has a defect, he may not approach the altar to offer food to his God. 22 However, he may eat from the food offered to God, including the holy offerings and the most holy offerings.23 Yet because of his physical defect, he may not enter the room behind the inner curtain or approach the altar, for this would defile my holy places. I am the Lord who makes them holy.”

Of course, we may say, we live in enlightened times, but we know what a long shadow these texts and others like them can cast.  Consider too, for example, how someone, with a disability might feel if they think they discern a call to priesthood, having been brought up in a faith tradition which is strongly “Bible based”, or “scripture led”, how potentially damaging might that be?

Some of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles have also led people to make a false connection between disability, sin and the need for physical healing.  So let’s name this and get it out of the way.  The account of the healing at the pool in John 5, certainly seems to make a link between sin and experiencing difficulty “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you”; but sin is not directly linked to the fact the man can’t walk.  Other accounts, such as the account of the man lowered through the roof in the synoptic gospels also challenge the notion more directly.  Jesus says to his detractors “which is easier” to say “your sins are forgiven or get up and walk (Matthew 9:5; Mark 2:9; Luke 5:23.)

I would suggest that the account of a man born blind in John 9 and Bartimaus in Mark 10 46-52 (which we might note, can both be translated as “honourable son” and “son of the unclean”) suggest a more nuanced approach to disability.  The blind man’s circumstances are so that the work of God may be witnessed through him and the first question Jesus asks Bartemaus is “what do you want me to do for you?” an invitation, not an imposition.

Taking everything I’ve just explored into account, it is small wonder that the church has got itself into a bit of a bind over disability; are we rooted in sin, or our we special receptacles of God’s grace?  In truth, we are neither, we are human and flawed like everyone else. Little wonder though that even when it is not explicit, there is an assumption, a hope even, that the best expression of God’s work in the life of any disabled person is to see their disability healed.

Let me say at this point, two things.  Firstly, I recognise what a seductive thing physical healing is.  I believe absolutely that it is possible for God to heal physically today.  I would never dissuade a member of the congregation, disabled or otherwise from praying for physical healing if they wanted to but like most seductive things, the question of healing is both beautiful and terribly dangerous if it is misued. To persist doggedly in prayer for physical healing beyond the point where it is comforting or life affirming is to risk denigrating what we have in Christ and to deny the opportunity for a wider, deeper healing of the spirit to take place.

Secondly, God does not make mistakes.  I believe that his call to us, his church, in respect of disability is far more radical than we imagine and I think that God does not have half as much of an issue with disability as many of us seem to have.

However challenging it may sometimes be, I believe that disability is to be embraced in Christ as an expression of human diversity under God.  That means  that disability is not something to be allowed for, accommodated, explained, or “worked around” but embraced wholeheartedly, for we are all God’s handiwork in all our brokenness.

Speaking for myself, there was something genuinely liberating in the realisation that whatever the world thought, whatever I thought, God thought that my disability was fine. For me to walk is not part of God’s blueprint for me – and in that moment – everything changed. I could truly succeed at being me rather than constantly falling short – because according to the Maker’s plans for “Rachel Wilson”, everything works okay!  Liberated from a sense of failure, so much more becomes possible, new horizons dawn and new possibilities open up.

For the church, this means that we need to ensure that the church is a place of radical hospitality where disabled people can flourish and grow into the whole people Christ intends them to be.  This means places of love and compassion, places not afraid of questioning, dissent or anger, as we would wish for anyone, where disability becomes less of a “additional needs” issue and more of a social justice issue.  I would far rather you got angry about the fact that I can’t use the trains properly because the stations aren’t properly staffed than you did about the fact that I can’t walk.

To reach a place where the church has a new understanding of disability is a prospect which genuinely excites me but I think we underestimate the length of the road we have to travel at our peril.  Assuming disabled people can do anything with the right attitude doesn’t make it true. We need to work together in a way that will bring that about and that takes time and a real will to make a difference, not just by talking or wishing but by doing. We need to take the barriers disabled people face seriously and seek to break them down. The church has become very used to caring for disabled people – at its best this is wonderful – at worst it infantilises people or refuses just to take them as they are.  It also continues to be a challenge for disabled people to take up positions of authority in the church and be taken seriously in them.  Although things are improving, I still occasionally catch people wrestling with whether to think I’m “marvellous” or whether to worry about whether I can be a proper priest if I can’t stand up.  It is possible to want to care for people so much that it simply crushes them, or disempowers them; that’s not care, that’s control – we are here to help people breathe and grow, which may mean they behave in ways we find challenging or disagree with but our call is to love them anyway.

Finally, the Good News is that all of you can make a difference in all of your churches just by being the people you are.  This isn’t an equal opportunities thing or the right thing to do, it’s a Gospel imperative and we can start now, all of us.

So what are some practical steps that we can take to make the church more accessible in its broadest sense?  I’ve broken this down into categories for ease of reference  but please remember that two individuals with the same impairments may have different ideas about what suits them best, so if in doubt just ask – these are only guidelines, not rules, flexibility is everything!


Disability and the Church – A few practical tips


General Principles
  • Never assume, always ask and take the answer at face value – don’t just do what you think is best
  • Accept that offering people a choice may mean that they choose options you wouldn’t choose, but you should respect the choice they make
  • If you ask a question, really listen to the answer and ask for clarification if you’re not sure, you’re much more likely to get it right that way!
  • Don’t assume that a new disabled person will need “looking after”, they may just want to be left alone. Be friendly but be sensitive – it is possible to be overly-kind.
  • A word about language – don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing paralyse you. Disabled people routinely use verbs like “walk” and “see”, even when they don’t literally apply to them – it’s fine for you to do the same.


Mobility Impairment
  • It’s not just about getting in the building and ramps
  • What’s your parking like? Are routes from car park to church easy to negotiate
    • Don’t have a “place for wheelchairs”. Having a choice of where to sit is preferable
    • Having communion brought to you in your seat is no substitute for going to the rail if that’s what you would prefer to do. Try and make it possible for people if you can. If people prefer to receive where they are, that’s fine


Visual Impairment
  • Introduce yourself by name
  • If a person asks to be led, let them take your elbow
  • If they have an assistance dog, offer the dog some water, but don’t talk endlessly about the dog
  • Have material available in large print


Deafness/hearing impairment
  • Don’t shout
  • Keep your hands away from your face so they can lipread
  • Don’t stand with your back to a window, it casts your face in shadow
  • Speak slowly and clearly on one topic at a time
  • Consider learning some basic signs
  • If the person’s first language is British Sign Language, lipreading will be taxing for a whole service, if they attend regularly, get an interpreter


Mental Health
  • Don’t force people to socialise
  • Accept that their mood may vary from week to week
  • Be guided by what they want to talk about
  • Don’t ostracise them
  • If you feel unsure or out of your depth, say so, you can help one another


Learning Difficulties/Autism
  • Treat people in an age appropriate way
  • Avoid use of idiom or figurative language (note the Gospel is full of it)
  • Don’t draw attention to behaviour you think is “odd” or “inappropriate”
  • Welcome them on their own terms
  • Talk to them, not through them


Speech Impairment
  • Never pretend to have understood or guess
  • Don’t interrupt – let people finish in their own time
  • Listen carefully and check understanding regularly
  • Always address the person directly and in an age appropriate way

Revd Rachel Wilson

10 June 2015