Thinking about disability? My guess is most of us prefer not to. It’s a difficult subject we would rather push to the sidelines. The Paralympics allowed this much-avoided aspect of life to take centre stage. At the opening ceremony, Paralympics chief Lord Coe said to the crowd: ‘Prepare to be inspired, prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved.’
The games create a wonderful opportunity for God to open up people’s hearts and minds to the challenges posed by disability, and to discover more about him and be changed by him. If we allow ourselves to engage with this topic, my experience (as an able-bodied person) is that we will find ourselves being provoked and transformed in ways we never expected, and be led into a deeper understanding of God’s amazing, unconditional love. I believe this is something we all need to engage with – because to God, there is no such thing as a non-disabled person.
Paralympic gold medallist, Michael McKillop, who has cerebal palsy and epilepsy, said of what its like to compete as someone with a disability: ‘I don’t let it hold me back. I compete to the best I can… the drive of having a disability… has driven me to be the athlete I am today. But when you encounter a visibly disabled person, how often is your response: ‘That’s sad; how terrible. What an awful position to be in. You poor person!’? That’s certainly been one of mine. Disabled people had little ‘beauty or majesty’ to attract me – I felt sorry for them and ‘esteemed [them] not’ (Isaiah 53:2-3).
Perceiving disabled people this way can lead to other reactions, too – the harbouring of unrealistic ideas about how ‘brave’ they are, guilt at feeling more advantaged, an unnamed discomfort, even irritation, creating a desire to withdraw or escape.
Imagine what it’s like to provoke that reaction everywhere you go – to see the pity in people’s eyes, feel it in their discomfiture, hear it in the well-meaning but patronising comments. In all these, there’s a distancing of ourselves from disabled people, a need to see them as somehow different to ourselves.
The need for changed hearts
People tell us to see the person, not the disability – but it’s not that easy. That’s why, when disabled people are asked what makes life most difficult for them, they invariably answer ‘other people’s attitudes’, not lifts or ramps or toilets. That’s why we need to ask God to change our hearts, not just our buildings.
In fact, these reactions say more about us than they do about disabled people: they stem from our own inner fears and personal insecurities, doubts about our selfworth, and our misguided value systems. It is our hearts which are in need of healing far more than the bodies of disabled people.
The Disability Discrimination Act has prompted many churches to make excellent improvements to their buildings. However, God’s Church is made of ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2:5). Physical adaptations cannot do the trick. They must be accompanied by change from within – which is far harder to achieve.
A brief glance at the Gospels shows the universal acceptance offered by Jesus to disabled people was as unusual then as it is now.
As we can see from Isaiah 53:2-3, Jesus clearly knows what it’s like to be viewed through such fallen human attitudes. He also longs to heal us from them, so that his Church can accept and value disabled people as freely as he did. But such change is not an easy process, nor a quick one. Political correctness is no answer – it is just a superficial coating smoothed over unreformed hearts.
The problem is, disability disturbs people at a very deep level. All kinds of hidden fears begin to surface – about our own inner brokenness, our physical vulnerability and mortality, and the nature of our human existence. This is probably why disabled people have been shunned or sidelined by virtually every society across all time.
We need to confess honestly what our hearts really feel about disabled people, and the demands they make on us – and then ask God to help us change. Only then can we offer disabled people the genuine acceptance they so desire, instead of the pseudo-acceptance that so often substitutes.
It’s important to realise how much God has to teach us through disability – about weakness, vulnerability and reliance on God’s grace. In particular, learning to accept disability in others means learning to accept our own disabilities. This is what makes it both so hard and so rewarding.
Very few people fully accept themselves as they are. Most of us struggle with the illusion that we have to be perfect or achieve in order to be loved. Disabled people can help break the power of this myth. They model that we don’t have to be whole or ‘healed’ or perfect in order to be loved, and that our true value is not measured by what we can or cannot do.
If we trust God, if we let him lead us into the world of disability, we will find ourselves being transformed by the people that we meet. They will challenge our attitudes and values head on.
The more at home we become with our own failings and limitations, the more at home we will feel with others who are disabled. This is what helps us realise how loved and accepted we are – in our universal brokenness. Discovering Jesus’ heart for disabled people involves discovering his heart for us all.
Jesus tells us that whatever we do for the least of these brothers and sisters of his, we also do for him (Matthew 25:40).
We could ask, when Jesus comes to us now in the shape of a severely disabled person, do we recognise and receive him? Do we value and appreciate him? Or is he, who became disabled and broken for our sake, still turned away and not understood?
The more we step out in faith to overcome our prejudices and our fears, the more whole and complete the Body of Christ will become. If the Church is to become the fully inclusive and accepting community God has always desired it to be, it must begin embracing humanity in all its forms. Without this it cannot fulfil its prophetic calling, to reflect God’s character and heart to the nations.
Jesus says: ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). God longs to see the barriers between disabled and non-disabled people broken down, and more disabled people being drawn into the Church – and being genuinely honoured once they get there.
One way we give the world a picture of God’s love for humanity is through the time and value we give to those affected by disability – and in so doing we too are drawn into a deeper experience of God’s unconditional love.
Fiona Maccabe works as a counsellor in a Christian GP surgery. She has been involved with Christian disability charity Through the Roof since 1998