Ableism, society and the church

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In recent years, there have been strong and persistent campaigns against “Ableism”. Like sexism, ageism and racism, ableism is about prejudice against people seen as of less value than others. As the word suggests, it is about prejudicing able bodied people against those with physical and mental disabilities.  As with other prejudices, ableism can include physical and verbal attacks but it is also about implicit/unconscious bias and structural prejudice meaning that the way our society operates stacks the odds against those with disabilities.

It’s for this reason that we have equal opportunities legislation that includes provisions about considering accessibility to public venues and that people can expect reasonable modifications to their workplace environment and to their job roles. At the same time, we might want to question whether or not that goes far enough. The very point about unconscious bias and structural prejudice is that it is rooted in cultural presuppositions about people.   The idea that we make reasonable modifications for someone and consider accessibility still implies that we are being forced to suffer inconvenience to help someone.

Now, imagine that Stephen Hawking had come to deliver a speech for your organisation. One of his team came to visit in advance, they wanted to go through the details with you. When they arrived, they observed that Professor Hawking probably would not be able to get into the bu8ilding due to the steps in. They then identified a lack of appropriate toilet facilities and the auditorium itself simply wasn’t suitable.  Furthermore, you had not allowed enough time for his speech given the way in which his voice delivery software functioned.  Would you see these comments as being the equivalent of Maria Carey riders (next he’ll be asking for a basket of kittens to stroke), or a frustrating inconvenience?  I think not.  Rather, I believe that you would be so excited to have the professor come and you will have been looking forward to benefiting from his knowledge that you would have done whatever was necessary to make it possible.

In the same way, when we think about the workplace, our aim with every employee should be to design their role and their environment in a way that enables them to perform at their best and to deliver their specific skills, talents and knowledge.  It is about a change of mindset.

What about the church?  Do we see these things as an inconvenience?  In this week’s service, Sarah and I talked about how people look down on people with disabilities and make faulty spiritual assumptions about them. We live in a world where most governments seem intent on eradicating Downs Syndrome not by a cure but by ensuring that children with Downs are not born.  Isn’t that horrific. Yet in the church, someone with Downs is likely to be overlooked, ignored and patronised.  Here is a thought exercise.  Could you imagine someone with Downs on your leadership team? Could you imagine them leading a service or preaching? I suspect if we are honest, most of us would have to admit that we could not. Yet as I mentioned in the discussion, often people with Downs seem gifted with deep emotional intelligence, compassion, spiritual awareness and love for the Lord.

Let’s keep thinking about how we are doing. How easy is it for people with disabilities to access and engage in our services? This may include conversations about the physical layout of our buildings and how we project words and amplify voices. It may be about the vocabulary we use and the structure of our events. It may be about the timing of things. Think for example about when you have leadership meetings.  Would the timing and venue work for someone whose disability causes great exhaustion? Would you change the time, structure and venue to work around them or would you consider the challenges a barrier to them getting involved in leadership?

Once again, this is not just about going through the procedural motions. How do we see people with disabilities in our churches? Do we see them as people made in God’s image? Do we see them as redeemed, loved by God, co-heirs with us in Christ? Do we love them and value them? Do we have time for them? Are we humble and willing to learn from them? Do we want to make space for their gifts? Or do we see them as an inconvenience?

1 comment

  1. Very intetesting! Many churches have found it ‘difficult’ to make congregational worship available to those who physically couldn’t take part. Difficult, yes. Impossible? NO! See how quickly online services were pulled together when Covd19 appeared! Mind you, when ‘normal service’ is resumed it is beholden on us to make churches accessible to All, with our great diversity of gifts!


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