The Church, Disabled People, and Awkwardness

This post is part 9 and FINAL POST of my Summer Series featuring each of the Ten Christian Voices We Can’t Ignore from my e-book, Outside In, which you can get for free by subscribing to my newsletter here.

I quote Tanya Marlow in my book, Outside In, on the chapter about disability. She is wise, strong, and as a recently disabled person who also teaches Biblical Theology, is uniquely positioned to speak into the church regarding how to treat people with disabilities within church culture. I am honored to have her on the blog today, join me in learning from her very practical advice.

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Disability is not the cool kid of the minority groups: while the internet lights up with blog posts about the church and racism, feminism, LGBT issues, there aren’t many people writing on disability and the church, and there aren’t many people reading. Why? Because of awkwardness.  

It’s this awkwardness that you feel when you meet someone with a disability – the fear of saying the wrong thing and offending them, the discomfort you feel because the person is not making eye contact, or they’re slurring their words and you find it hard to understand them, or their body language is either hostile or over-familiar, or they’re sitting in a wheelchair and you’re looking down at them, or you don’t want to repeat your words again, or they’re walking painfully slowly and you are in a hurry.

It’s awkward, and when we are faced with awkwardness, we want to avoid it. As a result, we Christians often discreetly, subtly ignore disabled people.

The church preaches with gladness the gospel of a God who values those the world despises. Do we live it? Sometimes our mouths preach love for the unloved, but our eyes pass over the difficult, the needy, the disabled person, and rest upon the self-sufficient, healthy, beautiful people.

Here are two truths about disabled people that the church needs to remember.

1. Disabled people are people. 

Disabled people are often treated as slightly less than human – even by Christians. There are two instinctive reactions to someone with a disability: revulsion or rescue.

Revulsion – some see the wheelchair or guide dog and are wary – maybe you don’t want to offend the person, or you don’t know much about that illness or disability and don’t want to expose your ignorance, or you assume that because that person is Disabled and you are Not Disabled, you won’t have anything in common.

Rescue – Some see the disability or chronic illness and are sad to see the limitations. So you react with the best-intentioned response – ‘let me pray for you’. Sometime prayer is welcome, sometimes it is not. It’s probably best to ask someone if you can pray for them, and not be offended if the answer is ‘no, thanks’. The other phrase, which is natural and instinctive, is the question, ‘have you tried…[insert therapy or alternative medicine here]?” This should always be offered with caution, because so many people say it, and it can be wearying for the disabled person to always be offered solutions of how to improve themselves.

Offers of prayer and alternative medicine come with two big assumptions: that I can be changed (which, outside of a miracle, is unlikely to happen) and that I need to be un-disabled to be okay.

Imagine if someone came up to you when you were at church and said, ‘hi – I’ve noticed you are not reaching your beauty potential. Have you tried a face lift?’ or ‘hi – I’ve noticed you are intellectually inferior to others. Have you tried playing chess daily?’ Imagine hearing this sort of question from someone different every time you went in a public place. How would you feel about yourself?

The response of revulsion or rescue turn the disabled person into either an object or a project: both reactions are dehumanising.

I appreciate people asking about my health and how I’m doing, because that is a large and important aspect of my life. But I am a person. I love puns, and laughing at jokes with my little boy. I love roses and irises and the smell of jasmine. My favourite books include Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and I sing at the top of my lungs to Taylor Swift songs.

These are some of the many things I love talking about. If you ever happen to see me in church, let’s talk about books and music, and theology and family, and I will love you forever if you don’t offer me any alternative therapies.

Other disabled people may differ from my attitude: and that’s the point – we are people, individuals. Disabled people, like any minority group, are not homogenous. We are individuals, with unique characteristics and value. Disabled people are people.

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2. Disabled people are disabled.  

Some are good at remembering that disabled people are people, but not so good at remembering that disabled people are disabled, which is to say that we need extra support to do the things that come naturally to able-bodied people.

Because of my neurological illness, my legs give way after a few metres of walking, my concentration is very limited, and unfamiliar places exhaust me.

I am always grateful for the people who see me approaching in a wheelchair and stop to pull open both doors to let me in (one door is always, inevitably, bolted at the bottom and needs to be yanked.) I notice with appreciation those who see the glazed look in my eye when I am in a crowded or noisy place and ask if I need to go home to rest. I am always fearful that people will assume that am a diva or control freak when I ask them to come to my house instead of going to theirs, and relieved when friends say they understand. When my able-bodied friends retweet or share an article on chronic illness or disabled rights, I want to hug them.

How to overcome the awkwardness – two questions to ask 

Because we all worry about saying the right thing, here are suggestions of two questions you can ask a disabled person.

Remembering that disabled people are people, ask us the same question you’d ask a non-disabled person – “how are you?” If a disabled person works or cares for their family, you can ask them about that. If they are too sick to do that you can ask them about their hobbies, or interests, or passions, or dreams, or whatever they’ve been thinking about recently.

It can be hard to anticipate the needs of a disabled or sick person when you don’t know much about the condition. So the second question I would recommend asking is, “Is there anything you need?”

  • How are you?
  • Is there anything you need?

If you want to communicate value to a disabled person, these two simple questions are not a bad place to start.

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Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. Her worst habits include laughing at her own jokes and singing songs without knowing the lyrics. She writes honestly at Thorns and Gold on the Bible, suffering and the messy edges of life. She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, which you can get for free here.

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Read previous posts from Outside In Summer Series:

Five Reasons Christians Should Do Comedy (Too Funny)

Ten Reasons People with Disabilities Shouldn’t Go To Church (Too Disabled)

Procrastinating Until Marriage (Too Single)

Too Smart to be Christian (Too Smart)

Interview with Unvirtuous Abbey (Too Digital)

Do This Before You Add One More Thing To Your “Busy” Schedule (Too Busy)

Jesus Isn’t a Pill and My Pills Aren’t Saviors (Too Depressed)

Rejecting Passionless Hope (Too Sad)

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  • Love this, Cindy!

  • Suzanna Turner

    Oh how I hate the….”Have you tried….?” Typically it is something that is homeopathic which people, like myself, who are on disability certainly can’t afford. (insurance doesn’t cover it.) There is also this assumption that we haven’t tried everything, which we have, or maybe even think we like being disabled. (maybe it is just me) Our faith in God can be in questioned if we don’t have enough faith in God to heal us.
    When one meets a new person the first thing people ask is what do you, as in what job do you have. Well for a disabled persons to that question we think, “ahhh ahhh what should I say”. Who we are is not what we do for a living. Questions about hobbies can be a great conversation starter Many disabled people can’t work or only part time. I would say the majority of disabled people live on $800-1000.00 a month. Disability=Poverty. One way people could help us is by sponsoring us so that we can participate in things like retreats or special events at church. Even $10 can be too much for us. Transportation to and fro sometimes can be a problem for us so if you can volunteer to pick us up that would be great! We need to be involved in order to be part of the community of faith and to figure out what gifts we can bring to the congregation.

    • I love love love this comment. It highlights things I didn’t have the space to go into, such as the inevitable “what do you do?” question. Sometimes I answer, “oh, I’m benefit scrounging scum”, just for funsies (but Jon normally tells me off for this!) I think better questions for me are ‘what’s been on your mind recently?” because I always have an answer to that one. I think asking about hobbies is also really affirming.

      I think you are right to say that – sadly – some people think you want to be disabled. Here in the UK there has been a particularly vicious campaign of media propaganda against all disabled people as potential fakers and drains on the state, which is particularly galling.

      And you are right to say that for a high proportion of disabled people, disability = poverty. There are so many extra expenses that come with being ill or disabled. I would hope that the church would have arms enough to welcome you and pockets enough to help you financially.

      Great to meet you here!

    • Some great practical suggestions, Suzanna!! <3

  • daydreamerinca .

    Thank you, Cindy, and thank you, Tanya, for continuing to bring this subject to the forefront. As someone recently disabled, it has been startling and unsettling to be thrown into the receiving end of the revulsion/rescue dynamic. I understand why it happens, but we can and need to do better.

    • Yes! I became a wheelchair user for the first time in 2008 and it was a real shock to see how people responded.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Thank you, Tanya for these honest and wise words. The practical suggestions for helping people with disabilities know they are valued are helpful. I know I struggle with wanting to help but fearing that I’ll accidentally offend somehow. (The awkwardness, I suppose, that Cindy mentioned.) So thanks to Cindy for hosting this conversation!

  • Great article, Tanya! it may be a personal thing, but I actually hate having to answer, “How are you?” because it inevitably implies there’s something wrong with me (my faith/my God) if I cannot reply that I’m doing fine, thank you, or even somewhat better than before. It seems that an honest answer is so often not expected and can even cause embarrassment to give one. Perhaps it’s an English thing to be asked this question with an anticipated response of, “Very well, thank you. How are you?” and with neither party really wanting to know beyond the socially acceptable reply.
    Mind you, if I could raise a smidgen of interest in my creative outlets, (writing in particular) and my wider faith explorations such as contemplative prayer and becoming an inner monk, then we might just get a better conversation going! Just because I’m unable to work doesn’t mean I’ve given up on being involved in life or disinterested in what’s happening in the world either. Quite the contrary. More time to mull things over than most, I guess! Thanks for your wise words on this topic as always, Tanya, and thanks to Cindy for hosting. 🙂 x

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