Theology and Disability Ministry
From the word’s roots in Greek, theology is the study of God. Such a study is audacious to say the least. How can a human mind hope to understand God? As a beginning point, many people turn to St. Anselm, who wrote of “faith seeking understanding.” Theology seeks to help us understand our faith in God. The next step is then is what God calls us to do in the world.
The primary concern of disability theology is humans, who are created in the image of God, but exhibit many variations. Some of these variations may seem to be limiting, but on careful examination, are human views of different ways of understanding or doing things. Theological study reminds us that “Yahweh does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7, NRSV).
Theology also reflects on life as experienced in a journey with God. It asks, “where is God in this?” Therefore we place value on how people live and where they find God’s presence and direction. When we meet to worship, we express this search through our rules for living together. In the United Methodist Church, the Discipline and Book of Resolutions outline these rules. Although neither perfect nor followed perfectly, they tell us what we aspire to be.
Theology also reminds us of our call, and of the needs that we all face. As such, it also reminds us to strive to reach everyone, and that sometimes this requires knowledge of how those needs are understood and absorbed in different ways by some. It also reminds us that we all stand equally before God. People with disabilities have gifts of their own to bring to the body of Christ. These gifts may be different but they are vital to its health. Therefore, we speak of ministry with and not ministry to people with disabilities. The ultimate goal of ministry goes beyond outreach and even inclusion to full participation.
Theology also has a practical, in-life dimension. Discussions of structure, nature, norms, and possibilities must be accompanied by follow-through and action. The term “dyspraxia” is sometimes applied to a failure to turn one’s theological statements into action. We view “disability” as a positive word that makes up an important facet of the identity of many persons in the disability community. Cute phrases like “handicapable” or “differently abled” convey a message that there is something wrong with having a disability. Our message embraces disability as one aspect of diversity in the rich spectrum of humanity created in God’s image and equally welcome at God’s table.
- Theological Resources including Book of Discipline from the UM Association of Ministers with Disabilities
- “A theology of fullness for all of God’s people” Missional Wisdom Foundation
- “Moving Toward a Better Theology of Disability” Jill VandeZande, February 2018
- “Disability Theology: Taking the Body of Jesus Seriously” John Swinton, June 2016
- “In heaven, will a blind man see?” Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News, March 26, 2016; features a UM pastor
- “Welcome the Exceptional: Churches that embrace people with disabilities do more than they imagine” Christianity Today editorial, January 4, 2010
- “Disability and God: A Place to Begin” David McLachlan, Disability Justice Hub of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, September 2021
- Collaborative on Faith and Disability
- Summer Institute on Theology and Disability
- Summer Institute on Theology past presentations
Ableism is another term that arises in disability theology. Similar to racism, ageism, and sexism which divide us by characteristics over which we have no control, ableism is based on the assumption that there is such a thing as “normal” and that some of us fall outside that range. The concept of “normal” comes to us from the field of psychological testing and has no place in the community of faith.
Ableism arises when those who make plans and decisions do not consider their impact on persons who live with one or more disabilities, or even without concern for the effect. It is the exception that someone might set out to exclude people, but unconscious ableism causes well-intentioned people to make decisions that do cause exclusion.
In particular, rather than acknowledging that all of us have needs that must be met in order to participate successfully in a given event, ableism labels some “special needs” and takes the stance that meeting special needs is optional. Someone with an ableist mindset may look around an inaccessible setting and remark that there is no need for accessibility because no one who uses a wheelchair attends anyway! This view tends to place a heavy emphasis on the costs of accessibility, rather than realizing how universal design of events or buildings benefits many people, e.g. mothers using strollers or people pushing heavy AV equipment carts. As Lawrence Carter-Long of Disability Rights & Education Defense Fund states, “There is nothing special about a need other people get to take for granted. Denying someone something that other people get by default is discrimination. That’s also what we should call it.”
- Understanding Ableism: read online, or download PDF or Word
- Approaches to dismantling ableism: PDF or Word
- Able privilege reflection examples: PDF or Word
- Dos and don’ts for the disability ally: PDF or Word
- Ableism and Disability Glossary: PDF or Word
- Ableist microaggressions in church life: PDF or Word; and worksheet template: PDF or Word
- Ableism Resource list: PDF or Word
- Disability Etiquette Skit “Can you believe it?”: PDF or Word
As mentioned, our goal is not just accommodation, or even inclusion, but full participation of all people with their various gifts. In this respect, the Gospel calls us to do better. We can learn to plan ahead to meet access and participation needs. Then we can communicate the access available and reach out to the many who may have been unable to attend in the past. Finally, we can joyfully come alongside each other as allies who ask what is needed for full participation and advocate for equal access. Then the kin-dom of God will have come a little closer to all of us as we welcome differences!
- “Extend worship to people with disabilities” Tim Vermande for UM Com, February 2013
- “Use technology to extend worship beyond the sanctuary” Heather Hahn, UM News Service, August 2010
- The Church and People with Intellectual, Physical, Psychological, and/or Neurological Disabilities from “What We Believe” at UMC.org.
Tim Vermande and Lynn Swedberg, August 2016; revised September 2021