"People talk about institutional racism, but being a white guy who is involved in athletics, I don't see it. Do you experience it?"
He looked at me patiently and said, "Absolutely!"
"Will you help me to see it?" I asked in all sincerity.
Those semesters that we lived together were truly eye opening as he relayed daily experiences that I was totally unaware of. I began to see things that I had never seen before. Many of the things were stupid things that could have been easily stopped. But they persisted nonetheless. Although I didn't understand the term at that time, what I learned from my friend was what might be called structural injustice. Sure there are people who can be purposely discriminatory towards someone else. But what he helped me to see was something else. Some thing that was present but sometimes, not always, hidden in the structures.
In the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden talks about the combine. It is everywhere, in the walls and it controls everything, particularly in the ward where he lived. It was the negativity the control that he felt. He called the ward where he lived the factory of the combine. The point is that it was pervasive, institutionalized, within the structures which surrounded Bromden both physically and socially.
What are the structural injustices which live within the church as it relates to persons with disabilities? One must first ask if there are structural injustices? Although others might disagree, I have to say that I believe there is such structural injustice. Once again, they aren't always a deliberate act on someone's part to be an agent of injustice. But injustice is experienced nonetheless. I have often used this quote from Wolfensberger in this blog but I will cite him once more. He says, "Thus for many people to all work toward a bad thing requires no deliberate or conscious conspiracy...most citizens are not aware of how they themselves can be totally unconsciously acting out undeclared, large-scale, societal policies in their own daily lives (from "A leadership-oriented introductory social role valorization (SRV) workshop, February 27, 2007). We can find ourselves in an unreflective pattern of living that we have been taught or socialized into. To break out of that pattern requires something remarkable to happen in us; we need to see how we unconsciously "all work toward a bad thing."
In regards to persons with disabilities in the church, we can say that we just didn't know about the structural injustice which might actually be true. If we are brave, we can ask those with disabilities about whether and how they experience structural injustice. And, just as my roommate helped me to see, we can help others and be helped to see things which are actually somewhat obvious once we are made aware. A good starting point would be for me to take my life experience and just compare it to the life experience of someone else. Say for example, a person with intellectual disability or someone who uses a wheelchair. What can I do, what opportunities do I have that he can't do or doesn't have? Why is it that there are those differences? Are they in any way justifiable? If not, why do we allow them to continue? Are there actual structures socially and otherwise which should not be present?
The church should NOT be the agent of structural injustice. Lets look for it reflectively and root it out.