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

Thursday, March 12, 2020

DIsability and belonging

The church offers great potential for participation in ongoing relationships and prevention of abandonment. At times, those of us who are not intellectually disabled, can emphasize the importance of relationships with peers who are not disabled while those with disabilities may not recognize this difference. We are motivated to seek to integrate people for the benefit of those without disabilities (individually and as the Body of Christ) as well as for the benefit of those with disabilities. We do this out of obedience to our understanding of what the Bible teaches about people. This is true even though those with intellectual disabilities themselves might not understand these motivations and even though the larger Christian church might not understand these motivations.

To truly embrace belonging, we cannot say to someone, “You belong over there.” That is not belonging, that is segregation. In spite of the care of those in the group to which someone is assigned, to be assigned is to not fully belong. We also see a difference between those doing the assigning and those being assigned. Howard Thurman in part encapsulated this.

Segregation can apply only to a relationship involving the weak and the strong. For it means that limitations are arbitrarily set up, which, in the course of time, tend to become fixed and seem normal in governing the etiquette between the two groups.  A peculiar characteristic of segregation is the ability of the stronger to shuttle back and forth between the prescribed areas with complete immunity and a kind of mutually tacit sanction; while the position of the weaker, on the other hand, is quite definitely fixed and frozen. (Thurman 1976, p. 42, as cited in McNair & McKinney, 2015)

Belonging to the Body of Christ versus to a subgroup of the body changes things. If I belong to the whole body, I have expectations for the whole body. If I belong to a subgroup of the body, there may be different expectations, but they may or may not be antithetical to the goals for the entire body. So,

A. Subgroups should reflect the mission of the whole (assuming the mission of the whole is a true reflection of the Bible).

B. If the result of the work of the subgroup facilitates the mission (or what should be the mission), then that is desirable.

C. If the mission of the whole is wrong and the subgroup facilitates that mission, that is wrong.

D. But if the mission of the whole is wrong but the subgroup facilitates an alternative mission that is in line with the teaching of the Bible, then that subgroup is attempting to facilitate cultural changes within the larger group.

Belonging is basic to that mission. It is also basic to the vision of what the church should be.  Many churches are not embracing belonging, and many ministries are not embracing belonging. They may think they are, but if they are segregated there is an aspect of that mission that they are not getting entirely right. Leaders who do not embrace people fully belonging are teaching their congregations about who they believe those people to be. That is the lesson that has been taught for decades which has led us to the situation we find ourselves trying to dig out of.

This important conversation is about how to understand and facilitate belonging, is evidence of the degree to which we have misunderstood, as the Christian church in the world, our responsibility towards people who have been devalued because of disabilities they experience. But are we willing to do what belonging would require?


Monday, February 10, 2020

Separating people with and without disabilities

When I look at ministry that includes persons with disabilities and I admit I am hypersensitive to this issue, I worry about things that we do that separate people with disabilities from people without disabilities. They can be very subtle things. Things that those particularly with intellectual disabilities may not really pick up on. Yet those of us without intellectual disabilities if we think about it, know what we are doing.

I think about this when ministries are scheduled at times when no one else from the church is present. That type of ministry conveys that it is all about serving the persons with disabilities (not necessarily a bad thing) but that they have little to offer the rest of the congregation so we needn't have them present with everyone else. If we felt they did have something to offer, we would insist that everyone was together at the same time.

Sometimes we can also treat people in an age inappropriate manner. We interact with them in ways that we as those without intellectual disabilities would likely not tolerate if we were treated that way. Yet because of our perception that they do not understand, we can treat them in that manner and for many, they will not understand what is happening to them.

Age appropriateness should be a critical consideration in any form of ministry. People can be socialized into thinking they are children and accept that treatment. I know of people with disabilities who have been socialized in this manner and are like that. People can also be socialized into thinking they are the age that they are chronologically. I know people who are like that too. They will not tolerate being treated in a way that doesn't respect them as adults. If I were to treat you in a way that doesn't respect you as an adult, according to your age, you would likely be offended. It is my desire that persons with disabilities, whatever their disability might be, would also not be separated, and not be treated in a manner that is not commensurate with the respect that they should receive according to their age.

This is a subtle consideration but very important.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Stop "blaming" people with disabilities!

When you try to answer the question "What is disability?" the typical response, typical understanding is based upon two "models" of disability. The medical model says that disability is a characteristic of individuals. So I have a visual impairment or I use a wheelchair. However as research has indicated, the experience of persons with disabilities cannot be explained on the basis of their impairment. That is, there is something else which must be taken into account in understanding what disability is. The social model was developed to try to explain that. The social model says that the experience of disability is in part the experience of being discriminated against because of this characteristic one has called impairment. If we truly want to understand disability and assist those who experience disability we need to maximize a persons skills and change a discriminatory social environment.

It is interesting, however, how we have many different strategies that we use to teach people with disabilities or help them to not be limited by their impairment: medical model interventions. Yet we do next to nothing to change social environments such that people do not experience the other part of disability, discrimination: social model interventions. If for some reason you are not successful in a job, we seem to assume you were the problem and we give you more training. If you are excluded from a social environment, we assume you were the problem and try to improve your social skills. The take home lesson, is that if I experience discrimination because of a characteristic I have, the answer is to somehow fix me. I don't think we really feel the hurtfulness of that.

We need to stop "blaming" people with disabilities. You might think I am overstating this response, but when have you ever interacted with schools or human service agencies where the focus of their efforts was social environment change versus solely changing the individual with the disability? As stated, we have myriad interventions to improve the skills of individuals. Do we have any strategies that are employed to change social environments? It is as if there is no knowledge of the fact that a major understanding of what the experience of disability is, is to be discriminated against by the social environment. Many people who I have spoken to will tell me, the most difficult part of having a disability is not the disability but the way you are treated if you have a disability. Now this is a very broad statement, and there are many disabilities where there is great suffering experienced. But there are many others for which this statement is true.

But what does this have to do with the Christian community? It is arguable that efforts that people make to include persons with impairments into local churches are perhaps the ONLY efforts being made to change the social environment. Things you have read on this blog about cultural change within the church are perfect examples of this social model type of intervention. We say that we need to accept people with disabilities, as they are, and work to change the church social environment such that it is more loving of its neighbor. Can you detect the HUGE difference here? We have moved away from blaming someone for the discrimination they face, seeking to continually improve them in some way such that they might be "acceptable" the to social environment. Instead we say to the social environment, "You need to change." "When are you going to love your neighbor?"

This is an important realization.

It is we in the Christian community who should and to some degree are the only ones truly working on social environment change, seeing ourselves as the purveyors of discrimination and working toward the goals of inclusion and belonging as if we were working on an IEP for the church.
May God forgive us for our lack of love.
But may God also bless us with great progress as we seek to be the place where social model change is truly being explored, embraced and implemented!


Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Disability ministry: Our Light & Power Class song

The ministry that my wife Kathi and I facilitate along with others is called the Light & Power Company. We meet at Trinity EV Free Church in Redlands, California. Recently, I ask Scott Freeman, our worship leader and facilitator to write a song about the class. He wrote "Light and Power in Jesus Name" which has become our class's theme song over the past few months. Brandt Haas is the videographer and editor. Below is a link to the video. It is fun and reveals a lot about how we do ministry among adults with intellectual disability. Enjoy!

Monday, January 06, 2020

More thoughts on Disability Ministry and Cultural Change within the Church

I am currently awaiting the publication of an article I wrote related to the kinds/areas of cultural change that need to occur within the church. These areas will be addressed more fully when that article is hopefully published. But in the meantime, here are the areas addressed that I believe need to be considered in doing cultural change.

14 Areas for Cultural Change
1.     The typical worship service
2.     Who is invited to friendship
3.     Religious education/faith development - practice
4.     Religious education/faith development - goals
5.     Religious education/faith development - outcomes
6.     Affirming what should be affirmed in our culture
7.     Facilitating presence of persons with disabilities
8.     Providing opportunities for involvement/roles
9.     Creating platforms for prophetic voices
10.  Seeing needs and addressing them
11. Understanding programs versus relationships
12.  Evangelizing people with disabilities and discipling them
13.  Broadening acceptable social skills in the church
14.  Ecumenical cooperation in supporting people with disabilities and their families

Be watching for more in these areas. Also make any suggestions you might have in the comments.