Understanding Disability and Disabled People

Welcome to the HEBA Disability Justice Group web blogs. During 2022 the group will produce a series of articles about different aspects of disability and how disabled people can be enabled to participate in the life of our Baptist churches. This introductory article explores some of the ways that disability is understood and how disabled people are either excluded or included from society and church communities.

The most common way to understand disability has been in terms of the characteristics of an individual person. These characteristics are often defined in the form of a medical diagnosis or a medical condition. These characteristics are sometimes referred to as being impairments. A disability is understood to arise directly from these impairments, such that a disabled person is unable or restricted in the way that they are able to perform activities that non-disabled people (usually referred to as able-bodied people) are able to do. A term handicap then describes the disadvantage that this leads to with regards to education, housing, work, social life or church involvement. The focus is on the individual person who has a medical condition which prevents them from participating in society dominated by non-disabled people. The solution is seen as curing or healing the person or providing ways of reducing the impact of their impairments. There is an assumption made that disabled people are passive and need the care, support and assistance of non-disabled people.

Within churches this has meant a focus on the provision of physical access to buildings, such as ramps and accessible toilet facilities, and the use of induction loops or large print. One significant impact of this approach is that churches sometimes see disabled people as passive members of a congregation who need pastoral care from active non-disabled people. It has been suggested that the individual/medical approach to disability results in churches being heavily influenced by a so-called Pastoral Care approach to disabled people. This forms a significant barrier to the active participation of disabled people in church communities since it reinforces the asymmetric relationships between disabled and non-disabled people. It also tends to mean that the voices of disabled people are either not heard or are ignored.

This understanding of disability may lead to an emphasis on praying for disabled people to be physically healed so that they can subsequently participate fully in the activities of the church community. If prayers for healing do not appear to have been answered then some churches have concluded that either, the disabled person does not have enough faith to receive healing or there is some form of unforgiven sin that needs to be repented of and forgiveness received.

A subtle effect of this understanding of disability is to reinforce the idea that people conform to an idea of ‘normal’, particularly regarding physical appearance and intellectual ability. This may mean that those who do not conform to what is considered ‘normal’ are marginalised or excluded. In addition, this can strengthen the perception of disabled people as all being alike and yet being different to non-disabled people, which inhibits the formation of meaningful relationships between disabled and non-disabled people.

This so-call individual/medical understanding of disability has its roots in the eighteenth century and was the dominant understanding until the late twentieth century. Many non-disabled people still understand disability in this way, well into the twenty-first century.

During that latter part of the twentieth century a different understanding of disability became much more common. Instead of focussing on individuals and their impairment this approach focusses on the attitudes and actions of society dominated by non-disabled people towards people who are disabled, by these attitudes and actions. Under the so-called Social understanding of disability a person’s impairment is understood as ‘Lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism in the body.’ The disability that people experience is understood to be ‘The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have a physical impairment and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.’ The term handicap has disappeared completely. In this social approach the characteristics of the individual are no longer the direct cause of their disability. A person’s disability arises from the attitudes and actions of non-disabled people which excludes and isolates disabled people from their communities and society. This can lead to disadvantage with regards to education, housing, work, social life or church involvement.

Rather than expecting disabled people to change, be cured or healed in order to be included in all aspects of society, this approach emphasises the need for changes in the social attitudes towards people living with impairments. This change results in actions being taken by society that enable disabled people to be included. These necessary actions range from physical access, for example the provision of physical aids such as wheelchairs and hearing aids, to the social, political and economic changes required for disabled people to actively participate rather than passively observe. This emerges from a separation of the assumed link between impairment and disability. This separation has proved advantageous, but is, however, also one of the approach’s major weaknesses. This is because the social understanding of disability can ignore or overlook the real impact of someone’s impairment.

For churches the focus shifts from only making physical changes to enable disabled people access to church buildings and services and puts greater emphasis on the attitudes and actions of the church community towards disabled people. The emphasis on attitudes and actions towards disabled people has shifted attention from the physical healing of disabled people, with its emphasis on non-disabled people praying for disabled people, towards developing inclusive relationships between disabled and non-disabled people so that together we participate in ministry with one another.
I want to suggest an emphasis on fostering friendships between disabled and non-disabled people is a significant way of fostering greater participatory inclusion of disabled people in our Baptist church communities. As Baptists we have recognised the importance of covenant relationships with God and one another. Historically these relationships have been expressed in the phrases ‘walking together… and watching over one another.’

Covenant relationships can be a rather abstract idea and there is a good argument for understanding them using the language of friendship, with God and with one another. In John 15:9-17 Jesus transforms his relationship with his disciples from servants to friends. This is a radical call to love one another since such friends may be called to lay down their lives for their friends as Jesus did for us. Friendships exist across a very broad spectrum, from the most intimate to those that are casual and fleeting. They are often face to face but can be sustained at a distance and many deep friendships exist on-line. Friendships exist among and between non-Christians and Christians, with the presence of faith adding a deeper significance to the relationship rather than transforming it into something else.

Fostering friendships between disabled and non-disabled people can transform our understanding of disability and the inclusion of disabled people in church communities. This is particularly effective if these friendships are intentionally inclusive, emphasise mutuality and reciprocity and take into account the particular context of all people engaged in the friendship.

The transformation of our understanding of disability and the inclusion of disabled people arises out of recognising that we are all human beings made in the image of God and in relationship with God and one another. Whether we are disabled or not, male or female, rich or poor, of different ethnic or social backgrounds etc. become irrelevant compared to our union in Christ.

If we focus on friendships between disabled and non-disabled people then this provides a strong motivation for people to become active participants in their local congregation. We want to encourage our friends to engage and participate in the activities that are important to us, such as being part of a church community. Friendships enable both parties to contribute and receive from one another, enabling disabled and non-disabled people to understand each other better. Friendships often occur in particular contexts and taking this into account can further enable participatory inclusion.

If we understand relationships between disabled and non-disabled people in terms of covenant friendships then this has implications for the inclusion of disabled people within our Associations, among Baptists Together and our ecumenical relationships with other church traditions. There are also implications for church engagements in local, regional and national secular society if our inclusion of disabled people provides a model of inclusion for others to emulate.

Rev Dr Martin Hobgen

December 2021

Posted in Disability Justice, Justice Hub.