How shocked would you be if a local minister said to you, ‘Oh, we don’t really bother about women in our church; they’re too complicated, we don’t really understand them’?
Or: ‘To be honest, we’re not interested in engaging with non-white people. The cultural differences are so great, we don’t see how we can bridge them’?
I hope you would be outraged that such attitudes could exist in 21st century Britain. And yet, though the words may never be spoken, this is the tacit attitude underlying many churches’ approach to disabled people in their communities.
I say that not to condemn, but to state a problem, one for which Christian charity ‘Through the Roof’ offers a solution.
There is not space in this article to go into the biblical basis for the full inclusion of disabled people in the life of the church. I have posted a more detailed examination of this at
www.throughtheroof.org/everyone-complete-in-christ and invite you to read it.
What I would like to look at in this article is one way Christians erect barriers that hinder disabled people from taking their full place in the ‘body of Christ’: by the use of language which excludes.
Hopefully, within our Christian communities, non-inclusive language seldom stems from an intention to exclude or demean disabled people. However, it can betray a casual and unthinking way of consigning disabled people to a kind of collective category, instead of seeing them for the precious individuals they are.
There are terms that have been used in the past without reference to any demeaning derivation, and terms that have come to be misused as a form of insult. When we continue to use these terms out of ignorance or carelessness, we exclude disabled people from their full place among us and imply they are of less value than their non-disabled brothers and sisters in Christ.
Since I doubt whether many Christians actually intend to convey that message, it’s worth looking at some of these terms and why they should be avoided.
My own two bugbears are ‘the disabled’ and ‘handicapped’. Speaking of ‘the disabled’ suggests we are dealing with a homogenous group of people barely distinguishable from one another.
We would not view ‘the blue-eyed’ or ‘the left-handed’ in this way, so why should any other group be referred to in this manner?
The origin of the term ‘handicapped’ is in dispute. But one possibility is that it dates back to a time when it was considered disabled people had no option but to beg for a living and to hope you would put your ‘hand’ in their ‘cap’, with a donation for them.
No wonder so many people with disabilities feel the word ‘handicapped’ very keenly! I would like to see it eliminated from the vocabulary of the Christian church.
In the past, society has often used a ‘medical model’ of disability, employing terms that identified disabled people as being unwell or as patients. This essentially sees disability as only a ‘problem’.
However, for the Christian who confidently affirms that ‘all things work together for good, to those who love God who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28), disability can be something God uses. It can bring positive blessings to the person who experiences it.
For example, the parents of a boy born without sight noticed that, because all his life he had been putting his faith in things he could not see, he found it easier to trust in the unseen God. He did not wrestle with ‘faith’ in the way many other young people might do. So to speak of him as ‘suffering from’ blindness put him in the belittling position of a victim to something negative, instead of affirming positive aspects.
Similarly, speaking of someone as ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’ implies helplessness or victimhood. Far better to speak factually of this person as a ‘wheelchair-user’, with no emotive connotations attached to the phrase.
Similarly, someone born without hearing, or someone who has experienced hearing loss, may prefer to be identified simply as a lip-reader or user of sign language.
In the past, many words and phrases have been coined to describe people whose thought processes operate more slowly than average or whose understanding is more limited than most.
Almost all these phrases have been appropriated by schoolchildren as insults. I have even heard children taunting each other with the phrase ‘special needs’! It is sufficient to say that a person has a ‘learning disability’. This clarifies that they do not learn things as easily as other people, but avoids adding an emotive or demeaning aspect to that factual information.
‘Spastic’ may be a medically accurate description of the state of a muscle, but this does not mean it’s acceptable to refer to a person as ‘spastic’. It is sufficient to say that someone has cerebral palsy (CP for short).
A doctor taking medical students on a ward round once pointed at my daughter and said, ‘She’s a CP’. I stood up and said, ‘Excuse me, she’s not a CP; she’s a little girl who happens to have CP!’
But sometimes, people make the mistake of going to the opposite extreme and beatifying disabled people as a ‘wonderful inspiration’. This is intensely irritating to most people described in this way!
It’s as though their challenge in life — disability — sets them apart from all other people facing challenges. In the final analysis, it’s simply another way of saying, ‘You are different from the rest of us’, and thereby isolating them from our communities.
The disabled teenager who overcomes obstacles to achieve a good set of exam results is no more a hero than the teenager coping with parental divorce who still manages to do well in exams. To single one of them out as an ‘inspiration’ wanders into the realm of unreality.
All this may sound to people who have never previously thought about it like political correctness gone mad. But it’s the casual and unthinking things we speak which reveals our attitudes to one another.
By using language which suggests someone is a passive victim, I am reinforcing that this is really how I see them. Jesus, on the other hand, saw people as God originally created them to be.
It was Jesus who said, ‘Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:34). This is why we need to make sure we are seeing disabled people as God sees them and that our language truly reflects this.
Of course, simply altering our language is not going to magic our churches into places where disabled people truly feel they belong and are valued; there is much more work to do.
Browsing the Through the Roof website (www.throughtheroof.org) will help you find resources to become a more inclusive church (and keep checking back on the site, because we’re going to be adding new resources all the time).
Until we adjust our heart attitudes and the language which reflects them, we are not even going to get past the first hurdle. Bob Goff recently wrote, ‘The way we love each other is the best evidence the world’s got that Jesus is still alive’ (Love does, Nelson Books, 2012). If a disabled person ventured into your church next Sunday, would she find evidence that Jesus is still alive?
The author is training resources developer at Through the Roof