“What’s her name?”
The airport official spoke over my head to my husband and it took me a while before I even registered she was referring to me.
Why doesn’t she just ask me? I wondered. And then it clicked: it’s because of the wheelchair.
Apparently, the wheelchair I sit in signified to the woman that not only do I have mobility problems, but I am incapable of speech. I felt half-offended, half-amused. At such moments I don’t necessarily think holy thoughts. After all, when you’re sitting in a wheelchair, the person standing in front of you has their crotch at prime head-butting height.
* * *
We had just entered the main teaching marquee at the Big Christian Conference, when we were greeted by a frowning usher.
“This is the wrong entrance. You should have come through the front. The disability section is down there.”
We were ushered past the rows where our friends were sitting and into The Disability Section, where anyone with sight, hearing, learning or mobility difficulties was herded into one, safe, contained section, right at the front. I was disabled: I now needed to use a special entrance and sit with the other disabled people.
The last time I was at that conference, I came as a speaker. I was the one at the front, and people had looked me in the eye and asked my opinion on matters of theology. This time, even people who had known me for years didn’t recognise me because I was sitting in a wheelchair, and some found it hard to meet my gaze. My head was swirling with all kinds of losses, but I hadn’t reckoned on this particular loss: not being able to choose where to sit.
I understand that there are difficulties with accommodating the various needs of disabled people in churches and conferences. I know this is about pragmatism and budget. But that moment was a humiliating one. I fought back tears, and as people looked on, I smiled my biggest smile to show how fine I was with it. But as I was pushed into the sparsely populated, dimly-lit seating at the front, I wondered if we would tolerate any other minority group in church being segregated in such a blatant form.
* * *
How does the church respond to people with disabilities? Oftentimes, the same way as everyone else does: Revulsion, or rescue. I call it The Toy Story Effect.
If you recall the film, Woody the Cowboy, our able-bodied toy hero, encounters some gruesome-looking toys he has never seen before, the most frightening of which has a bald doll’s head on top of robotic spider legs. Their heads don’t match their bodies, and they move in jerky and unexpected ways. In other words, they are the disabled members of the toy community.
Initially, Woody recoils in disgust, and tries to protect his friend from being near them. We don’t do this in church, exactly; our Christian equivalent is to politely ignore the chap with Down’s Syndrome, avoid the guy with Tourette’s, or shy away from talking to the woman in the wheelchair who dribbles and slurs her words, because we are worried we won’t understand them, or that we will say the wrong thing, or that we will be stuck talking to them at coffee time. We smile a big smile and move on to talk to our real friends.
The other reaction is conveniently demonstrated by Woody’s subsequent actions. Once he realises they are not the cannibals he suspected them to be, he immediately takes charge. He has a great plan that will rescue them from their oppressive owner. He is their brain, and their saviour, and they, we assume, are grateful, but we don’t know for sure. These “disabled” toys are the only characters in the whole movie not to be given a voice.
Attitudes matter. We need to be careful, so careful, with our offers to pray for healing. That’s often the Christian’s first instinct–to “rescue” the person by praying for their healing. Sometimes this is welcome and helpful, but other times you are just the 100th person to pray for healing and leave, awkward and disinterested, when the healing doesn’t come. We shouldn’t be surprised by the suspicion and weariness in the eyes of the person who has been clinically depressed for twenty years. We are not their messiah.
* * *
When I could still walk a short distance, I often drove to church, looked in vain for a parking space that was near enough, and drove all the way back home without having left the car. For disabled people, “othering” doesn’t just mean feeling uncomfortable or being ignored by people in church, though it certainly includes this. It often means a literal, physical, geographical exclusion.
Buildings matter. Don’t tell me how much you love and include disabled people when you don’t have a ramp or a hearing loop installed in your church.
I can’t stop thinking about the words in Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
It used to be that disabled people, women, non-Jews, non-priests were excluded from the holy of holies, but Jesus’ death and resurrection gloriously destroyed each of those walls designed to keep people out. He obliterated those barriers, and in him we are one.
Love does. Love breaks down walls. Love makes ramps and disabled parking spaces.
Love listens. Love speaks to people as an equal, however different that person is, however uncomfortable we feel, however much we fear saying the wrong thing. Love gives silenced people a voice. Love asks disabled Bible teachers to speak, (and doesn’t just ask them to speak to disabled people about disability.)
Love looks for the ways in which those dividing walls Jesus came to destroy have been subtly rebuilt, smashes them all to smithereens, discovers the person on the other side, and looks her in the eye.
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She likes answering the tricky questions of faith that most avoid, and writing honestly about suffering and searching for God. She blogs at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook.
Image credit: musicmang