Exploring Disability and Privilege

Resource Author: Fred Berchtold

While attending the National Convocation of Reconciling
Congregations in July, I was struck by similarities in the movements to open church doors for persons with disabilities and for person who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Official proclamations of most denominations say we must minister to these persons. However, allowing them a full share in the ministry—allowing them to minister to us—ah, that's another thing! Church laws still say that some persons are not fit for ordination because of their disabilities or their nonheterosexual orientation. The right and privilege of ordination presently belong to heterosexual persons without disabilities.

It appears we still believe that the standard for the ministry should be Leviticus 21:17-20: "None of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. ...no [one] who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no [one] with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles." (NIV) Even ministry to those with disabilities often does not occur. Older church buildings with their many stairs seem to have been built with Leviticus in mind.

Persons who are viewed as "untouchable" feel pressured to hide the reality of who they are—to stay "in the closet." A friend of mine with a learning disability tells of an experience in seminary when she publicly described her dyslexia. Another student asked to talk to her alone. During their conversation, he became clear that he also had dyslexia. He told her, "Don't talk so loud. I'm sure that's what I must have, but I don't want anybody to know about it. ...And how would I ever tell my parents...?"

Those of us without disabilities often take our ability for granted. We may or may not be aware of how the everyday world is structured to favor us physically, psychologically, socially. That is ability privilege. With our privilege comes power to set societal customs, pass laws, and retain church policy statements which silence, shun, or shut out those with disabilities.

A Few Words about Words

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words..."—words such as faggot, dyke, four-eyes, cripple, deaf and dumb, or stupid can stab our spirits, opening wounds that are harder to heal than broken bones. "Specially challenged" is a euphemism that doesn't really clarify what is being spoken of. "Physically challenged" does not include persons with learning disabilities, mental retardation, or emotional problems. While language is still evolving, most within the disability-rights movement prefer the word "disability."

Persons are not "disabled persons." They are persons with disabilities. Persons are only "handicapped" if things are not available to help them overcome the limitations of their disabilities: glasses, hearing aids, wheel chairs, ramps, elevators, large print bulletins, sign interpreters, TDD telephones, and special teaching techniques for persons with learning disabilities. The church handicaps persons when it will not change to meet people's needs. Society handicaps persons when it places a stigma upon anyone who is different from "the norm," when it says "you must conform to what we say is standard"—or face the consequences of less accessibility, fewer basic rights, less privilege.

Making Connections

At least fifty percent of all people will
some day have either a temporary or permanent disability. Percentages for gay men are even higher when AIDS is considered a disabling condition. The quest of the welcoming church movement and the disability-rights movement is the same—the full inclusion in all areas of the life of the church for all God's children.

This is the goal for the local church I pastor. In January 1995, we adopted the statement: "Our mission is to proclaim to our church family, our neighborhood, and the world that the reign of God is at hand in which each person will be seen as God's special beloved child...we are open to persons abled and disabled of all races, ages, men and women, and persons who are homosexuals being a full part of our congregation and all its programs and ministries."

We are doing better at living out some parts of this mission than other parts. We are an older congregation, with few young people. We are in a mostly white neighborhood, which is reflected in our membership. We have one openly gay man, who grew up in our congregation and is now our lay member to annual conference. We still have a long flight of stairs up to our sanctuary, but we do have large print bulletins, hymnals, and Bibles for those who are visually impaired, a hearing assist system, and a Braille printer.

A Final Thought

When any of God's people are excluded, the church becomes a body that has a disability. It is as if a hand has been amputated or a part of the heart cut out. Christ wants his body, the Church, to be whole. That means all must be present.

About the author

Fred Berchtold, who identifies himself as "temporarily able bodied," is chair of the Northern Illinois Conference Accessibility Advocates Association and pastor of Norwood United Methodist Church in Chicago.