Learning From History – The Church Can Lead The Way (Ros' Blog)
Once upon a time in Britain, disabled people lived with their families, in their communities, and were as much accepted in their homes and villages as everybody else. Those who could, helped with the family businesses – often farming smallholdings, selling produce or engaging in cottage industries such as seamstressing. They worshipped in church, joined in harvest and other celebrations and were just generally part of the scene in exactly the same way as any other citizen. Sure, there may have been some who mocked or abused them, but plenty of others who sprang to their defence.
Then came the industrial revolution. Increasingly people began to move to urban areas and cities, and to be employed in mechanised factories. Disabled people were excluded from these workplaces and a shift of attitude began to take place. Gradually people came to be valued to the extent of their economic productivity, and those who did not make an economic contribution were increasingly despised.
A distinction was made between the 'undeserving poor' – those regarded as feckless or promiscuous, addicts and alcoholics, and their children, and the 'deserving poor' – those who were not responsible for their own misfortunes, and whom the state had a duty to support. The former were left to fend for themselves however they could.
Meanwhile the 'deserving poor' were the responsibility of the parish, which had a duty to care for them, and so they were at first herded into work houses. In these institutions food was sparse and simple, and contact with family was limited. Inmates’ clothes were taken from them and they were instead issued with uniforms. So began the institutionalisation of disabled people, and with it, a devaluing of their worth as human beings. No distinction was made between physical and learning disabilities – cerebral palsy was often referred to as 'congenital idiocy'. And inevitably, with this dehumanising came unspeakable physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.
A change to all this began to take place from the second half of the 20th century. The disability rights movement gathered momentum and gave disabled people a voice which has increasingly been heard and heeded; but sadly in the 21st century, fuelled by public figures and the media, it has again become fashionable to despise those who are unable to work or who need to supplement their incomes with disability benefits, and this has given rise to a 213% increase in reported disability hate crime between 2010 and 2015, with the Crown Prosecution Service stating that the unreported figure is likely to be far higher.
So how do we as churches respond to the needs of disabled people both to be supported and to be enabled to make their contribution to our society? Getting informed is a good starting place – I have frequent conversations with people who think I am manipulating statistics or exaggerating when I explain to them what disabled people face in our country today. As Christians we can put the facts before people and invite them to see what is happening in our communities.
The government’s own Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published a report, 'Being Disabled in Britain – a journey less equal' which is a real eye-opener on the many ways in which disabled people are disadvantaged and held back in modern Britain. Follow this link to download the report.
A year ago, the UN published its findings after an enquiry into the treatment of disabled people in the UK – an inquiry which it had launched after receiving multiple requests from both individuals and disability organisations concerned that disabled people’s human rights were being eroded. The UN inquiry found that government policy towards disabled people is resulting in grave and systematic violations of their rights under the international conventions to which the UK is a signatory. You can download the full report by following this link.
And then, having identified the problem, let’s respond. God makes no distinction between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' but lavishes His grace on everyone (Romans 5.7-8). We know that disabled people mattered very much to Jesus during His earthly ministry – as Joni Eareckson Tada put it, “Our Saviour chose to flash His credentials as Messiah through ministry to disabled people.” Proverbs 31. 8-9 gives us a mandate to 'Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.'
But beyond informing people and speaking up, we can model the love of God for others to see and emulate, making our churches and our homes into welcoming places, where disabled people can belong and feel safe. Did you know that you’re three times more likely to experience physical violence in the workplace if you have a disability? Imagine the relief, then, of being part of a church community where you could feel absolutely safe, accepted, loved and valued.
We can learn from disabled people, so that all of us, abled and disabled alike, can use our gifting to teach and disciple, using the skills and experiences God has given us to build up others on their Christian journey. In this way, the whole body will benefit and be built up by what every joint in it supplies, until we all reflect “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. As Amos Yong once said, “If people with intellectual disabilities represent the foolishness of this world, what hinders our viewing them as embodying the wisdom of God?”
So, in the light of all this, I am asking myself, what can my church do differently? How can we ensure that disabled people are given the same opportunities as everyone else to grow in faith, form deep friendships in the church and contribute the wisdom and insight God has given to share with us all?