What You Need to Know About Disability in the Church

by Christelle Myburgh and Toni Mould

“According to the World Health Survey around 785 million (15.6%) persons 15 years and older live with a disability, while the Global Burden of Disease estimates a figure of around 975 million (19.4%) persons. Of these, the World Health Survey estimates that 110 million people (2.2%) have very significant difficulties in functioning, while the Global Burden of Disease estimates that 190 million (3.8%) have “severe disability” – the equivalent of disability inferred for conditions such as quadriplegia, severe depression, or blindness. …. The number of people with disabilities is growing.” (World Health Organisation’s World Report on Disability 2011)

The majority of the rest of the world seems ill-equipped to successfully interact with those who are disabled. While the restricted ones may be at ease with their disability, the able-bodied amongst us often seem uncomfortable in their presence. Why is this?

We want to believe that most able-bodied people are keen to reach out and connect with the differently-abled, and are provided the opportunity to overcome fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge concerning disabilities. We are the church. We want to embrace the disabled the same way Jesus did. We want those in our communities who are physically challenged to feel welcome and understood in our midst. We want those with mental impairments to feel loved. This is a challenging yet realistic goal. To be able to reach this goal, we should allow the experts on disability, persons with disabilities themselves, to educate us.

Toni Mould has been a member of Shofar Stellenbosch for the past 13 years. For 33 years she has lived with Cerebral Palsy due to an unnecessary brain injury sustained at birth. Her intellect is not affected. But her body is significantly affected in the areas of speech, movement and balance. She accomplishes an extraordinary life for someone with her level of physical disability. She lives unaccompanied, works a half-day job, cycles for the SA para-cycling team and operates generally independently. Toni has possibly experienced every joy and each stumbling block an actively involved church member, who happens to be disabled, could experience.

Christelle Myburgh is an able-bodied employee at Shofar Church and is a close friend to Toni. Being Toni’s friend, she often also serves as Toni’s assistant. During the past four years she has gained some firsthand experience as to the greatest difficulties that Toni faces as a disabled, active church member.

Together, they have compiled the following helpful guidelines to becoming a church in which the disabled will feel welcome and better understood.

People who are physically disabled are not necessarily mentally disabled

Do not assume that someone with a speech impediment or disabled body is mentally disabled. Assumption can lead to great error! Take time to determine whether the person is mentally cognitive. It is trying and painful for an intelligent person to be treated as if they are ignorant. Toni obtained a BA Degree in Social Work at the University of Stellenbosch. She received the Rectors Award for Succeeding Against the Odds, co-founded (together with her colleague, Candace Vermaak) an NPO called Bridging Abilities, and manages it with Candace. She is also developing as an author. Even though Toni is exceptionally bright, she is often treated as if she has no understanding at all.

Slow down, be patient!

Disabled people will naturally maintain a slower pace, since speech and/or movement is restricted. We owe it to them to slow down. Their contribution is as valuable as anybody else’s, if not of more value since most life-lessons are learned through suffering. They often possess experience in a field of expertise, or a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to be shared. To hurry on impatiently will be your own loss entirely. Do not finish their sentences for them; allow them to communicate in their own way and listen well. Plan more time for events and outings in order for the disabled person to come along and share in the joy.

Relax and learn

Step out of your comfort zone, approach disabled people, and relax around them. Allow your children to ask them about their disability (with their permission). If you do not understand their dialogue, ask them to repeat themselves. If you still do not understand, apologise politely and ask if there is a possible interpreter, or even to send you a WhatsApp/email if you really can’t understand (But then do reply to show that you have received or now understand!). Remain friendly and do not avoid them. Be real and honest. They’d rather have you figure out how to interact with them than avoiding (rejecting) them on account of your own discomfort. Like all of us they have a great need to engage and belong.

Helping without hurting

It happens from time to time that Toni falls. Well-meaning people then hastily and haphazardly pull her up by the arms, sometimes two or three people simultaneously. Toni obtains worse injuries from the “rescue operation” than the fall in the first place. There are specific ways in which one should assist people with disabilities when they fall or need assistance. Stay calm and ask the person, or the person’s friend or assistant, how to help. If this is not a possibility, then ask a nurse/occupational therapist/knowledgeable person who might be nearby. If all else fails, work calmly and carefully to avoid further injury. Avoid touching or playing with assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches or guide dogs. They are there to help the person, not objects of amusement.

Be careful what you pray for

Never assume that people with disabilities inevitably desire prayer for “healing”. They are not “sick”, they are disabled or differently-abled. Like the rest of us they are on a unique and personal journey with God. Like the rest of us, the choice to respond to an altar call or come out for prayer is theirs completely. Unless there is a very real prompting from the Holy Spirit to pray (with utter humility) for such a person’s area of disability, it is respectful to allow them to feel safe in our midst, just as they are. Jesus did not always assume, He asked about the needs of those who approached Him (Mark 10:51).

People with disabilities are not objects of shame/pity or ‘heroes’

Previously, people with disabilities were seen as people to be pitied or shamed. Many people have said ‘Ag shame’ in response to seeing or interacting with a person with a disability. But the reverse has also been true: when a person with a disability has been exemplified in the role of ‘an inspiration’ or ‘hero’. While the former disarms and further disables the person, the latter puts further pressure and responsibility on a life that is already difficult. Unless you have a personal relationship, or know the person or his/her life, refrain from using the person as an example in a speech or sermon.

Allow people with disabilities to serve in the church

Just like anyone else, the person with a disability has strengths and talents. Give everyone, including people with disabilities, a chance to serve in the house of God. It aids in their sense of belonging and allows everyone to feel part of the family. It may require a discussion with the person with a disability as to what they are able to do or want to get involved in, but don’t assume or prescribe to them what they may or may not be able to do. Have that talk and allow everyone to bring their service to God.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks about different spiritual gifts and different parts of the body fulfilling different roles, but each one needing the other for the body to be whole. So it is with us in the body of Christ. Let’s take the time to acknowledge one another – our gifts, our abilities, and our limitations – and together fulfill the call of Christ.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

1 Corinthians 12:21-26

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