“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Friday, March 28, 2008


When a person with a disability enters a room, people will tend to notice the differences about that person. Perhaps it is his facial characteristics as with people with down's sydrome. Perhaps it is the fact that she uses a wheelchair for mobility. Perhaps it is some scar from an operation. Perhaps it is some other type of equipment that the individual uses to communicate or move safely, or breathe. These things stigmatize a person. That is, they cause those in the environment to think in a particular manner about the person who has the characteristic. If I show up in a wheelchair, people in the enviornment have their minds flooded with every idea, every notion they may have about who a person is who uses a wheel chair, be those notions correct or not. If a person uses a wheelchair, I cannot entirely help the fact that the enviornment will stigmatize them in particular ways. But I can do things that will help to remove the stigma or I can do things that will perhaps exacerbate the stigma. Let me give you some examples.

People with intellectual disabilities enjoy life as it is presented to them. Now I can present things to them via my disability ministry at church which gives the impression that disabled adults are really children. I can have them coloring pictures even though they are 50 years old. I can have them singing "Jesus loves the little children" even though they are in their 20's and 30's. I can communicate to those around the person with the disability that I believe that that person is not really an adult, she is really a child and because I am the expert in my church as the disability ministry guy, people will believe me and treat adults as children. Will the persons with disabilities enjoy coloring pictures and singing children's songs? Many will. However, I do not have them coloring pictures at church or singing children's songs because I know how this will stigmatize them towards others in the environment resulting in them being treated as children when they are not children. Instead, we will sit around tables like any other adult class at the church, sing choruses although they may be simple, which are typically sung in the church. If you walk into our class you feel like you are in a class for adults, not in a children's Sunday school class.

I think too many ministries for adults with cognitive disabilities convey the message through the activities that they do with those they are attempting to serve that these adults are children which is a great disservice to those to whom we claim to be ministering. Part of this problem is our knowledge focus in the Christian church. Sunday school is too often all about imparting knowledge, so if a person is cognitively disabled, then (it is thought) they need children's knowledge, delivered in a manner children would accept or be comfortable with. I would argue that knowledge should not be the primary focus of the Sunday school (even though it is called school) but it should rather be faith development. Faith development and knowledge development are two very different things. Is there knowledge associated with faith development? Of course there is. But I can become confused and end up just providing knowledge without worrying about faith development. Programs stigmatize adults with cognitive disabilities when they are exclusively knowledge based, partly because the accumulation or understanding of knowledge may be the weakest point for the person with intellectual disabilities.

However, faith development implies some knowledge, but also a lot of behavior. I can teach behaviors to persons with intellectual disabilities and it will likely result in faith development. For example, I can teach these people how to pray and then encourage them to pray daily, pray without ceasing, pray in faith. Will conversation with God via prayer increase their faith. I believe it will. I can teach them to fill their lives with uplifting media like Christian music or Christian video. Will that help them to grow in faith? I believe it will. I can also teach service and caring as a way of being like Jesus. In using these approaches, I am using the same approaches that those without disabilities should arguably use to grow their faith as well: doing something rather than just passively listening to something. As a result I am growing their faith in a manner that is not stigmatizing them by treating them as if they were children. I am also recognizing the fallacy of a overly intellectualized presentation of the faith that is too knowledge based for everyone in church, not just those with intellectual disabilities.



Mark said...

What I hear being suggested is that faith development in people with cognitive disabilities is increased when they read, or hear the Word, pray, find a place to experience fellowship with other Christians, and look for ways to serve the Lord.

That sounds a lot like the advice I hear given to new believers on the day they accept Jesus as their Lord. They are encouraged to do these things because these activities will increase their depth of faith in their new found belief.

That makes sense to me. Many churches encourage well established Christians to engage in the same behaviors for the same reasons. These are the things that lead to maturity in Christian faith. The skills required are present in most folks with cognitive disabilities. If we realize that, then we should expect similar results from all groups experiencing ministry within the Church.

Will H. said...

I hope you can join our community "Support People with Disabilities" on Change.org.


Will H.

Lee Stewart said...

Many years ago, I had a friend who been in the Army with me; the difference between the both of us was, that while had both experinced battle,the same battle, he due to having his faced burnt beyond recognition was not treated totally different. Everyone was guilty of "mentaly pointing the finger".
While he had friends, he had church friends, he had people to assist who had gone through this in other years, particular British Fighter Pilots of WWII, his mental state was being pushed to the limit.
But the worst insult arrived from "The Church" when a national public service took place in London, one year later & all those with "Disabilities" were put at the back of the church, some behind pillars where they could see nothing.During the service, another friend decided to "tell them what he thought". He was "removed" from the church!! for being disruptive!!
What are we doing??!! These are Christians are usually the worst!!

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Anonymous said...

I want to be the one to serve. No one need serve me.

You know I have a mental disability - not intellectual, but depression and related illness. I've been going through sheer hell the past year or so, but I am learning grattitude for God and all he gives me. How can those of us who are disabled (I'm also half deaf) serve when we may not feel comfortable speaking out, we may not be able to volunteer regular amounts of time (in my case getting my illnesses under control with medication and it takes a while and a LOT of energy). How too can we serve? I don't feel the need for anyone to serve me, I want to be the one to serve.


Clarissa S. said...

Dear Jeff, thanks again for a wonderful article. Your views are refreshing on a Sunday evening.
It was so nice to be with all of you on Easter, families together! sorry we didn't have any time to chat! Andrew doesn't sit down for too long anywhere.
great work.clarissa

Kevin Johnson said...

I sometimes find myself guilty of stigmatizing people that I see with a disability. I really noticed this when I got the job I currently have. My boss is in a wheelchair and has been since the age of 22. I was told by a friend that I should come down and ask for a job. I found myself very nervous to talk to this man in the wheelchair and thinking about it today I have not idea why. I also see this with others that come to our shop today. They judge him because he is in a wheelchair before they even get to know him as a man. I really liked this blog because I thought it was something that I could relate to. It is something that I struggled with in my life.

Anonymous said...

I loved your entry on "Stigma!" I absolutely agree that "people will tend to notice the differences" about people with disabilities before they notice anything else. My daughter's speech disability is apparent as soon as she speaks and she has shared with me that it has caused her extreme embarassment based on the comments she has received from peers and strangers. This has lead her to not speak around people she is not comfortable with unless she is spoken to. Often times my dauther's speach disorder is mistaken for an intellectual disability which is heart wrenching. This is a mild example of stigma applied to a disability, however, is minimal compared to the stigma that is applied to more obvious and severe disabilities. I really like the awareness that your entry brings to people that how we stigmatize people with disabilities is possiblity incorrect. Such a wonderful way of removing stigma and getting to know people with disabilities is by becoming a part of their lives through fellowship. This not only allows opportunity for better awareness and a better understanding that people with disabilities are people with the same needs and desires as those without disabilities, it also allows people with disabilities to come together as a group and build relationships with other people with and without disabilities.It is truly wonderful the way the Lord has worked through you to bring this awareness to others and to encourage people to reach out and meet, talk to, and invite people with disabilities to church and help create a place for them to be welcomed, feel comfortable, and looked at without being stigmatized.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. Your words are very true, and it is so sad that people immediately judge those who do not look relatively the same as the majority of people. It is important to remember we were all made in Christ's image, and we are all the same in His eyes.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. Your words are very true, and it is so sad that people immediately judge those who do not look relatively the same as the majority of people. It is important to remember we were all made in Christ's image, and we are all the same in His eyes.

Anonymous said...

On another note, I found it so interesting what you said about church, or Sunday school, being more of "faith development" than knowledge development. That was very insightful. And "mark" had a good point in commenting that this faith development is a lot like what new believers are encouraged to do when first receiving Christ.