A Forgotten Barrier: Attitudes toward Disability

  • Born with cerebral palsy, the tightness in Sandra’s muscles made her movements uncoordinated and spastic. Her father did what he believed necessary: he left her on the bank of a river, perhaps with the idea of returning her to the gods.

  • Emmanuel contracted polio at age six, resulting in a mild physical disability. His father, believing Emmanuel useless, put him out of the family to survive on the street.
  • Solange’s knee deformity made walking difficult. Coupling this disability with the mysterious disappearance of eggs, her father believed Solange was actually a snake in the guise of a child.
  • While giving birth to her fourth child, a mild stroke left Amie with hemiplegia, causing a definite limp and limited usefulness of one arm. Since the village “doctor” was unable to cure her (through physical and sexual abuse), her husband kept the children and sent Amie away to fend for herself.

These stories are typical of the experience of many disabled persons in developing nations, and represent a form of spiritual bondage which maintains a wall of separation between the temporarily able-bodied and the disabled. This separation presents a significant barrier to the gospel which must be overcome.

Jesus’ Mission of Freedom
My concept of missions is broad and focuses on the total redemptive and restorative work which Jesus emphasized in Luke 4:18-19 when he read from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Those hearing Jesus immediately recognized the reference to the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10-11) in which slaves were freed, debts canceled, property returned to its owner, and the soil was to remain fallow. Jesus was saying that with his coming, the true year of jubilee had begun, a time of hope being offered to those without hope, and freedom proclaimed to those in bondage to sin. It was a time of restoration, renewal, and reconciliation with God and fellow humanity.

These words describe Jesus’ mission as he saw it. It is the same mission he authorized his followers to engage in (Matthew 28:18-20): a rescue mission in which we are charged with doing our part to create a God-centered community that offers salvation, health, physical care, nurturing, economic support, reconciliation, and restoration—in short, shalom.

  
Based as they are on misinformation, attitudes about
disability and the disabled reflect fear, embarrassment,
guilt, anger, prejudice, or insensitivity.

It is a task which requires crossing many types of frontiers which present barriers between the people of God and the people of the world. According to Hans Kasdorf,

Once those frontiers have been crossed, the Church witnesses of God’s redemptive, healing, and helping grace on the other side of these frontiers. In this sense, “mission means being sent by God to love, to serve, to preach, to heal.”1

Many barriers to ministry to and with persons with disabilities are architectural, such as multiple steps which make the church building inaccessible and inadequate transportation which keeps persons with disabilities from participating in the local faith community. However, these barriers are often relatively easy to surmount with some creative problem-solving. 

Attitudinal Barriers
The more difficult “frontiers” to be crossed are attitudinal. Attitudinal barriers often arise from cultural beliefs and traditional religious thinking, as reflected in the stories of Sandra, Emmanuel, Solange, and Amie. Lacking scientific answers, people in developing nations have devised superstitious or mythological explanations for disability, such as a lack of proper reverence for one’s ancestors, broken taboos, witchcraft, evil spirits, or individual or parental sin. These erroneous views create prejudicial attitudes, which often result in exclusion of the individual by the community (or even by the family).

Such misconceptions shape a person’s thinking, causing him or her to see the disabled as personally responsible for his or her condition. A stigma becomes attached to the individual or the entire family, while at the same time elevating temporarily able-bodied persons (at least in their own mind), allowing them to justify rejecting, neglecting, or even eliminating the disabled. Persons with disabilities are pushed to the margins of society. This is exactly opposite to the approach of Jesus, who frequently broke through barriers and freely interacted with, even welcomed, persons with disability during his earthly ministry.

Based as they are on misinformation, these attitudes about disability and the disabled reflect fear, embarrassment, guilt, anger, prejudice, or insensitivity. These lead to equating disability with something negative or evil—a valuation which easily attaches to the individual, so that the disabled person is seen as negative, evil, incomplete, unworthy of living, or someone to be ignored or discarded.

These attitudinal barriers also lead to blindness on the part of the Church to the spiritual needs of persons and families affected by disability. In African contexts, there may even be a blindness to the existence of disabled people. Informed of the intent of an indigenous ministry to reach out to people with disabilities, one village chief responded that there were no disabled people in his “realm.” However, when he came to the church through which the outreach was being done, he found himself among ninety-five people from the immediate area with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities.

The Church Creating Community
The role of the Church should be to create communities in which people who are not alike can be found living and working together.2 This will allow the Church to assume its rightful position in shaping culture, and to become a visible expression of God’s love for all humanity through constructive protest against the social conditions faced by men and women with disabilities.

  
The role of the Church should be to create communities
in which people who are not alike can be found living
and working together.

The Church must seek to establish reconciled and reconciling communities which not only work toward restoration of right relationships between God and humankind, but also toward right relationships between individuals—all genders, all races, all cultures, all social strata, and all ability levels. Ministering to and with persons who have a disability necessitates a proactive approach by kingdom people with the same compelling spirit of which Paul spoke in 2 Corinthians 5:14, and the same urgency with which the servant was sent out to compel the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to come to the great banquet (Luke 14:21).

The Bible asserts the lordship of Jesus over the forces and divisions which bring enmity between people (Ephesians 2:11-18). Hence, Christians should engage the culture, bringing to bear on culture and social issues God’s transforming truth and the presence of Jesus, and leading the movement away from ignorance, insensitivity, and indifference toward acceptance and reconciliation, actively seeking to remove barriers which exclude disabled persons from all aspects of society. 

This must be done wisely and openly—acknowledging that church and culture are equally guilty of having neglected the disabled. There can be no escaping Jesus’ example and teaching in the parables about reaching out to “the least of these” (Matthew 25) and of including in the gospel invitation those whom society (religious and civil) has tended to reject (cf. Luke 14:15-24).

In seeking to meet the needs of all humanity, the Church of Christ must go beyond humanitarian objectives alone to minister holistically, addressing spiritual and relational needs as well as physical and social needs.3 For the Church to be salt and light in society (Matthew 5:13-14), it must speak out against any form of discrimination and injustice, especially against those who cannot defend themselves.

The Church must advocate for and defend the welfare and human rights of even the most severely disabled, recognizing that all people are God’s children by creation and have equal value as God’s image-bearers. God does not exclude people on the basis of ability; neither can the Church. The Church must be a change agent in society through living a lifestyle of reconciliation and acceptance. Jesus’ focus on including the excluded must be that of all Christians.

One Example of Disability Ministry
To encourage and equip churches to engage in ministry to and with persons with disabilities, Crossing Bridges Inc., a U.S.-based ministry, has established a collaborative relationship with the Center for Empowerment of Females with Disabilities in Cameroon.4 This collaboration has involved promoting disability awareness and providing ministry training through seminars in several communities, churches, Bible colleges, and seminaries. This training has resulted in confession and repentance among participants for attitudes of neglect and exclusion, and has resulted in the mobilization of many individuals and several churches for evangelistic and social outreach with disabled persons.

Excluding someone with a disability from the opportunity to hear the gospel—whether out of ignorance and oversight or intentionally, assuming the individual is neither worthy nor capable of receiving God’s love—dishonors God, whose love and compassion is not limited. Jesus’ command to his disciples was to take the good news to all the peoples of the world, not just those whom society or culture says are deserving of God’s grace. God’s grace is grace because no one is deserving of it.

Ultimately, the goal of disability ministry is the same as for any other form of ministry: bringing glory to God through proclamation of the gospel and through living a life that honors the one who has called us to be his children. More specifically, disability ministry seeks to:

  1. Open doors to sharing the gospel with disabled persons

  2. Integrate people with disabilities into the life of the church
  3. Model inclusivity and fellowship to the greater community and to the culture
  4. Demonstrate the love of Christ in action
  5. Meet the spiritual, physical, social, and emotional needs of persons with disabilities

The World Health Organization estimates that ten percent of the population is disabled. This equates to more than 670 million persons with disabilities worldwide, approximately eighty percent of whom are thought to live in the developing nations of the world. This presents the Church with a pivotal opportunity to model the practice of Christian love and to obey Christ’s command to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).

Endnotes

1. 1986. A Century of Mennonite Brethren Mission Thinking: 1885-1984. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

2. McCollum, A. B. 1998. “Tradition, Folklore, and Disability: A Heritage of Inclusion.” In Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice. Eds. N. L. Eiesland and D. E. Sailers. 167-186. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Abingdon.

3. Cf. Fuller, W. H. 1987. “The Church and Its Mission and Ministry.” In New Frontiers in Missions. Ed. Patrick Sookhedeo, 101-114. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Books.

4. Crossing Bridges, Inc., and Center for Empowerment of Females with Disabilities are international affiliate ministries of Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, California, USA.


Dr. David W. Anderson is president of Crossing Bridges, Inc., a ministry focused on disability issues and the Church. In 2007, he retired from Bethel University (St. Paul, Minnesota, USA), where he was professor and director of graduate programs in special education. He has lectured on biblical studies, disability ministry, and special education in Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti, England, and Ukraine.