Christians are so turned off by people with disabilities because they display God’s inaction in action. They are kryptonite for prayer, their conditions often worsen instead of better with time. Christians are not allowed to resent God for his inaction directly so they do so vicariously through individuals with disabilities. That’s why people with disabilities often get treated worse in church than other places.
Great comment by phil on a NYTimes disability article:
Every person begins in a state of total dependence and most end life in some level of the same. one day I will be disabled.
I think the real problem is the wretched idea that the most human among us should be independent. I refuse to dehumanize another because their level of dependence on others is greater than mine. There would be no need for a pride movement among the more dependent if we started accepting our interdependence and if we humanized people, not based on their abilities, but based on their innate humanity.
Therapists demonize neediness and dependence. Somehow we are all supposed to live in a world where we can live a self contained hyperindividualistic existence. Unfortunately economic reality dictates that many of us can’t and certainly most of us with disabilities can’t. What we can’t help being is what we’re not supposed to be. If that isn’t ableism I don’t know what is. It’s even worse than religion. At least with religion if you submit to their tenants and perform their rituals they usually treat you as someone you’re supposed to be.
And why is dependence a bad thing? Calling someone dependent on others is almost a slur. If the capability to be autonomous wasn’t out of reach for a large portion of our generation then maybe you could make the case for it. But it’s not. It’s just another way to kick us while we’re already down. That’s what our culture is good at, kicking us when we’re down. Those on top are loved and lifted up. Everyone else can go die in a fire.
You will be judged more harshly than someone without a disability, particularly if you lose things that give you value in this society. As long as you have things a normal person is expected to have like a job and a place you will be tolerated. Lose these things however and you will be judged more harshly. A person without a disability who doesn’t have a job will often be given more grace, basically “he’ll be back on his feet in a matter of time”. Someone with a disability will not. People will assume you are on the government dole (often true as one had to claim disability to get badly needed health insurance, even now with Obamacare you need to do this in the states that didn’t expand Medicaid). People are smart. They use conjecture to ascertain others’ future and after taking that action decide whether that person is worth engaging. A bitter irony is in the case of someone with a disability part of the reason people are rejecting is they assume the person won’t get a job because of the workplace based prejudice the rejectors themselves often perpetrate.
If you have a visible disability it’s your responsibility to make others comfortable with it. With a visible disability your every interaction with the world is an incursion. Your disability makes others in the room uncomfortable and it is incumbent upon you to put them at ease. My little brother actually brought this to my attention when he hurt his hand a couple of years ago. The hand looked awkward while it was healing (he called it an alien baby hand though I couldn’t tell anything was wrong). Now my little brother has good social skills so has no problem scoping out the room and finding a fitting way to put the people in the room at ease with this hand. Unfortunately as someone on the autistic spectrum I do not have this skill. When I was a child people were more direct about my disability (very thick glasses) so I could clear the air and then they were fine with it. As an adult people are more obtuse, without the directness I’m lost—and I lose.
The lower you are in society the less you are allowed to believe. The obvious manifestation of this is fundamentalist religion getting shoved down one’s throat but there are more nuanced ways it plays out as well. There is this myth in America that we’re all equal and even though it’s patently false those of privilege and power will go to great lengths to get people further down to buy into it. Some things you’re not allowed to believe follow:
Money and status are the most important thing. Those on top want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to reject lower status people and turn around and pretend status doesn’t matter. It’s an ego thing. They want to appear humble on the outside while being arrogant on the inside (feigning humility is an artifact of the Christian influence on Western culture).
Those on the bottom (like me) are the ones that know money and status are all that matters because of all the friends (and potential friends) we have lost on account of being low status. Of course high status people will give other reasons why they reject us and people will believe them because we naturally believe those of more power and privilege.
The world is cruel. Those in power want those without to be naive as possible. In this state the powerless can be taken advantage of more easily. You need both the carrot and the stick to effectively manage and control the masses. When people stop trusting the system you lose the carrot and consequently lose a lot of your control. For example it gets more difficult to string people along, promising them a job or marriage, if they just stay in an exploitative situation just a little bit longer.
My life would be better if I didn’t have this disability. One of the narratives of the powerful is the narrative of contentment of those at the bottom. And who is really lower in society than those with disabilities! The powerful’s narrative of fake egalitarianism goes something like this, “If those at the bottom are happy than we are all equal, so let’s pretend they are!”.
Show me! There is little that scares those in power more than people giving up on hope and taking up conjecture. Hope requires trust, conjecture doesn’t. Trusting is deferring to a person or institution with power with a best case scenario of breaking even. When trust is withheld, it strips a lot of power from that which was formerly trusted.
I saw April’s satirical post on why people should quit going to church and was inspired to do something more serious. So here’s why I think if you are an individual with a disability you should stay away from church:
1. Inaccessibility. This really shouldn’t be on the list because it’s a reason why you couldn’t go to church, not shouldn’t. But I put it on here nonetheless because churches are behind in providing accessible facilities as well as transportation for those of us who can’t drive.
2. Baggage. A lot of us with disabilities grew up being made fun of at church. Like all childhood experiences this went deep.. and informed our view of church as an adult, perhaps making out to be a more hostile place than it actually is.
3. Being a lone wolf. A lot of us with disabilities were the only one in our community with that specific disability (or possibly any disability at all). This makes for a very isolating road. Minorities have churches which cater to them but people with disabilities do not (because they are spread so thin geographically and have had organizational and transportational barriers).
4. Do doo doo. Especially for males there is right and a wrong answer to the question, “what do you do?”. If you give the wrong answer to this you are branded a man-fail and ignored. People with disabilities have a staggeringly high rate of unemployment and underemployment so they’re less likely to be viewed as worth engaging by church people.
5. Singled Out. The church in America is designed to incubate. It’s generally concerned with married people and their kids’ upbringing. If you are single (which a large portion of people with disabilities are) you are viewed as a lesser person and ignored.
6. Theology that sees individuals with disabilities as objects. Good compassionate theology is out there but it doesn’t often make its way to the church near you. People with disabilities are sick of being seen as items of unanswered prayer or objects to project your romanticization of suffering upon. Disability needs to be celebrated and that’s something most people can’t get their head around.
7. Experience of God. A lot of Christian teaching instructs us to take the voice of God seriously. For mentally healthy people this can be fine but for those of us who are mentally ill the results can be disastrous. The problem is, the people who have had the experience of God turn against them are so ill they aren’t in positions of power.
8. Perspectives run against the cultural narrative. Some denominations have made great strides in racial inclusivity which is amazing. They need to build on that including people with disabilities in positions of decision making. There is a deeper problem in that prejudice against people with disabilities hasn’t abated the same way other prejudices have. This is because disability runs counter to the cultural (and dare I say Christian) narrative of youth, vitality, and prosperity. A racial minority can still ride this narrative to a place of respect.
9. Being judged based on appearance. The internet, not the church, is the chosen refuge of those of us with disabilities. Online we escape the snap judgements levied on us in real life. Plus, geographic dispersion and transportation are no longer issues so people with specific disabilities can virtually congregate together.
10. Including people with disabilities hit people’s pain points. Let’s face it, most American Christians are drawn to the faith through promises of comfort. These people aren’t going to turn around and remodel an inaccessible bathroom or give a ride to church to someone with a mental illness who is effectively a shut-in because they don’t have any friends.
One of the things that often goes unmentioned is that one needs a car (or at least a ride) to get to church. This is because a lot of churches are not on public transportation routes and even when they are, many places on Sunday the buses don’t run enough to make it practical to use them. A lot of churches talk about wanting to be multi-ethnic and embracing those with disabilities but they don’t seem to realize that by requiring people to have a car they are excluding many people of color (who are generally poorer and often don’t have cars) and those with disabilities whose impairments often make driving impossible.
Christians like to say the life-giving parts of the faith are incarnational, not academic. But if someone can’t get to a church they are locked out of this benefit.
I have a visual impairment disability that is just bad enough to render me unable to drive. In 2013 I asked for a ride to two different churches and got turned down.
I am an odd duck, kind of in the no man’s land between being bona fide disabled and normal. Until the age of 26 I didn’t self-identify as disabled. My hand was forced due to all the prejudice I encountered upon trying to find a job. I write some (probably very politically incorrect) thoughts on this below:
We fight to achieve the milestones those without a disability take for granted, and—upon achieving them—they mean so much more to us. I had a real job for two years of my life. It wasn’t an easy two years but I felt better about myself those two years than the rest of teen and my adult life. I think those with disabilities are actually judged more harshly when they do not reach these milestones or at least the judgement given is felt more acutely.
We recognize how amazing and life-giving conformity is. People like to pretend that self-expression and being unique are important. What you find out is usually these expressions are things that are under one’s control—there is always a way to go back to the conforming expression if one so chooses. For example white people can look brown without being subjected to prejudice where brown people cannot. Someone who has to use a wheelchair all the time will be subjected to scorn and ostracism that someone who is in one temporarily will not.
We’re a great test case for a lot of society’s myths. Do people like someone for who they really are or what they have to offer? Do people have innate worth? Will the church include us even when it involves some of the laity acting sacrificially (giving rides, etc..)? Is the workplace a fair place for all? Does one’s bigotry toward a minority going down as one’s IQ goes up apply to disability?
We are expected to be exceptional in some area (or at least have a really sunny attitude) to “make up” for our disability. A lot of time we have no choice but to be so good at something because, due to prejudice, the barrier of entry to anything is a lot higher for us. A lot of us resent this but we have no choice but to play along. Some of us are pretty talented but not talented enough to surmount the barrier of prejudice. We languish.
The Reason. This one applies to all minorities but hits us hard as well. When something negative happens to us we automatically assume it is because of—The Reason—our disability (or its fallout—i.e. not possessing vocational success). This makes navigating negative experiences more opaque, because sometimes negative things happen for other reasons, but situations are so mufti-faceted and there is so much latent hurt that they get lumped in.
Before thinking about church growth you should ask yourself, who do we really want to attract? Not in the hypothetical sense but in the very existential sense where one looks at what they are already doing to ascertain who they’re really trying to attract. There are scads of books on church growth. Read one. Those books will almost always tell you how to get the people who you’re comfortable with and who will make you feel comfortable. On the other hand I have uncomfortable suggestions.
Put $20 in the commissary account of every freshly incarcerated inmate in your local city jail. The way it works (at least in Grand Rapids) is inmates are not given basic toiletries like toothpaste and deodorant and instead must buy them from the commissary. Dental hygiene is important, particularly for these people who usually are poor and generally do not have access to dental care. There is also the more existential issue here, just a Snickers bar can cheer someone in a desperate situation up the way it wouldn’t if it were just purchased at a local gas station.
Pay unemployed members of the congregation to drive the working poor (who generally have poorly working autos) to their jobs and other places. This serves a great need but it also gets poor people (who tend to be demoralized and isolated) interacting with each other. The ride program may be facilitated with an off-the-shelf smartphone app such as Life360.
Read what people write, particularly people who are not of privilege. People do not realize that the real world is far from a level playing field for discourse. As an individual with a disability who has social anxiety (or maybe just hypersensitivity to being snubbed) I have experienced this again and again. For me and many others the pen levels things out some. On the internet people do not see my disability and judge me for the content of my words alone. Of course the same holds true for a person of color or of a different sexual orientation.
Every week right before the church service hear a report from a representative of each minority in your congregation. This may be a African American, a Latina, a liberated woman, an L/G/B/T member, or an individual with a disability. A lot of the time the reports may have trivial details (like the Lions losing again) but the point is to prime the pump for when something deathly serious does happen (like the Zimmerman verdict, the oppression gays are receiving in Russia, or the plug being pulled on Terri Schiavo). The point of having it before the service starts is so the core members of the church (who generally come earlier) will hear it and if something of great weight happens the service will be postponed until the event has been let out.
It always ground my gears hearing chapel speakers wax romantically about suffering while I was in eye pain and serious depression. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I don’t have the historical knowledge to grasp but here is my speculation:
Those who have come through suffering with their articulation intact represent a biased sample. People who haven’t weathered suffering so well generally aren’t readily able to put it into words. And when they do it often comes out incoherent.
Suffering weakens people to the point where the most adaptive thing for them to be is virtuous. Christianity lifts up virtue so when it sees people who suffer exhibiting more of it it jumps to the conclusion that the suffering was what made them better.
Suffering makes some people more reflective. This can cause them to produce better art/writing and we value good work so we say the suffering that led to it must be a good thing.
Suffering makes some people more empathetic. The fact that someone’s suffering makes your life better doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
Romanticizing suffering comes from a premodern view of the mind. There is this dualistic notion that there are limits on what the corporal self can do to the inmost being. This is shown to be false by modern psychology. Once you have suffered past a certain threshold your mental health starts to degrade. And in the realm of mental illness there is actually something called a negative symptom—parts of you the mental illness takes away.
Painting suffering in a positive light assumes the ideal that those around you will support you instead of pull back or drop out of your life entirely. More often than not people drop out of the lives of those who experience serious suffering (which compounds the suffering). Those doing the romanticizing are unwilling to take the step of romanticizing the desertion.
Ultimately romanticizing suffering is a way for those who suffer more to make those who suffer less (who generally have more power) comfortable, insulating them from the senseless evil and chaos the world offers those without power in good measure.
See Part 2