As The 5 Stages has been presented and used by more and more churches and individuals, one of the most common questions we receive is: What does it look like when a church is at Stage 1 or 3? What’s the difference?
I thought it might be helpful to offer some characteristics that you can find in churches where ‘ignorance’ is the prevailing attitude about people with disabilities.
But ignorance is such a harsh word. I know, but it is even harsher to consider how it feels for people with disabilities when these attitudes persist, and–oftentimes–pervade. So, while I’m asking for your grace as I might point out some things that hit close to home, I am at the same time asking you to set aside your defenses, and seek God’s will for your relationships with people who have disabilities.
Please note that the following list is simply an attempt at a list. It is not exhaustive. I provide the list, not to make you feel bad, but in the hopes that it will be a tool to aid conversation with other members of your church, your family, or your community.
That said, here are seven signs you (or your church) are ignorant:
- Shunning. People with disabilities are not welcomed or prioritized because they have a disability. Some people believe that the presence of disability is somehow connected to a lack of faith or a curse upon that family or even that church. Such a church lacks the ability to see that no life on this earth can be free from difficulty or from the impact of sin and brokenness, and that it is, in some mysterious way, that brokenness that allows God’s grace and strength to permeate our lives. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
- Inconsiderate language. Sometimes, we use language that implies ‘lesser status’ for people who live with disabilities. We talk of ‘those people,’ ‘the handicapped,’ or even use words like ‘retard.’ Yet, we are all created in the image of God, and we are called to reflect His glory. All of us. Every last one of us. If we are all equally called and gifted as full image-bearers, then that applies to people who live with disabilities, and it means this: We might still say “She’s Down syndrome” or “He’s a cripple,” but we are always trying to do our best to speak about people in a way that honors their status as image-bearers. Even more important, we’re getting to know these brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we don’t speak of them as strangers, but as family members.
- Annoyance. Accessible parking spaces. The physical demands for elevators, ramps, hearing loops. It seems like people with disabilities are always demanding more accommodation and frankly, people get tired of it. If your first thought is to be annoyed by the presence and demands of people with disabilities, you may need to reconsider your attitudes (you may also need to have a conversation with the person(s) that are causing you to be annoyed).
- Lack of Spiritual Maturity. When our children refuse to share toys, we correct them for their immaturity. When we refuse to make space for people with disabilities to be part of our lives and communities, are we not doing the very same thing? When we make our church about us, and about what we want, have we changed it into something other than what God wanted? Is it God’s church, or our church? And if it is God’s church, then what does He want us to do to accommodate and include others?
- Lack of Awareness. Did you know that roughly 1 in 5 families in America is affected in some way by disability, whether physical (and obvious) or mental/emotional (often hidden)? That’s 20% of our population that is in some way impacted by a life with disabilities. Most people are surprised to find out the percentage is so high. When we think disability is only affecting a few people, we don’t prioritize the need, nor do we prioritize sensitivity to that need.
- Physical inaccessibility. Okay, so this is an easy one, I admit. If you don’t have wheelchair ramps, if the only way to get into church is up a flight of steep, concrete steps, you are telling everyone in a wheelchair or a walker that they are not welcome. But there are other accessibility issues. Will you accommodate people with vision impairments, or hearing impairments? How about people who need sensory breaks or who have a gluten allergy (with regard to communion)? This leads to the final sign.
- General insensitivity. This is a tough one, because it touches just about everyone. We all have moments (and sometimes lots of moments) when our first and only concern is our own life, our time, our plans. This self-focus inherently makes us less sensitive to others. Why? Because investing in the life of someone else (being sensitive to their needs) is hard work, even when no disabilities are involved. How much more challenging is it when we are investing in the life of someone who can’t talk, has a hard time getting around, or who just demands more than a few minutes of our time?
Remember, being ignorant is simply a lack of knowledge. It can be surpassed, you and I can stop being ignorant. I share these signs in the hope (and the relative certainty) that you will find yourself somewhere in here (just as I do), and that you will be encouraged to move in a new direction.
But what new direction is that? Here are some practical things you can do to move beyond ignorance:
- Reveal and accept your own brokenness (to yourself and ideally even to others). We want to believe we are strong and capable, traits which should distinguish us from people who have disabilities. Accepting our own failings is a step toward identifying with people who experience brokenness in a more immediate and obvious way.
- Consider how you would want your family to be treated. Maybe we can’t just throw all kinds of energy and resources into making our churches and houses accessible, but we can start asking what might be a good first step. Ask yourself what you would want to see in a church if you were a visiting family with a child who had disabilities. (Better yet, ask a family from your neighborhood to evaluate your church).
- Be ready. If and when someone with a disability comes into your life, whether they struggle with speech, with physical movement, with hearing…be welcoming, ask questions, seek to serve and encourage that person as a child of God.
Maybe, right now, you are ignorant, but you don’t have to stay that way.
Dan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.