As someone with a disability (I am hard of hearing), I’m thrilled to see more and more Christians blogging, tweeting, and even preaching about disability. People with disabilities are sorely overlooked in the Church—in fact, a 2010 study by the Kessler Foundation indicated that people with disabilities are less likely than people without disabilities to attend church. I hope and pray that the slight uptick in the disability-related discussion is just the beginning of a much longer (and much needed!) conversation.
We, as a Church, are just now learning to talk about disability, and like children with limited vocabularies, we sometimes stumble over our words. When children do it, it’s adorable. Like when my nephew started calling me Tutu instead of Auntie Lu, as I originally dubbed myself. But when we are clumsy with our words in discussions about disability, the stakes are much higher. What we say or write can either build up the Church by drawing in a person with a disability or weaken our unity by pushing someone (or their family) with a disability away. Even when we intend to be kind, our inexperience may lead us to say things that actually do more harm than good.
While preparing that sermon or drafting that article, here are four things to keep in mind when talking about disability:
Use people-first language. Generally speaking, we’re “people with disabilities”—a person who has Down Syndrome, or people who use wheelchairs, and so on. We are not “the disabled.” We are not a blob of a homogeneous group—we’re human beings made in the image of God. We are people, not our disabilities. “People with disabilities” affirms our God-given dignity; “the disabled” reduces us to a blur.
Think twice before using the words “hero” or “inspiration” to describe someone with a disability. While these words sound respectful, they run the risk of further alienating people with disabilities by holding us to an impossible standard and exacerbating the sense of “otherness.” Like “the disabled,” “heroes” and “inspiration” can reduce individuals with disabilities to an idea instead of recognizing their personhood.
Be cautious of using physical disability as a visual aid for a spiritual deficiency. Concepts like, “we’re all disabled in some way” or “people with disabilities show us our own deafness/blindness/weakness/etc before God” gloss over the very real and tangible supports that people with disabilities need and the different life experiences we have. When I hear or read statements like this, I wonder, “Is this all I’m good for—showing my brothers and sisters in Christ what it means to be ‘deaf’ to the Word of God?” My prayer is not for my disability to show you something lacking in yourself, but to demonstrate the wholeness of Christ. As Scott Sauls said of Joni Erickson Tada recently: “Joni, , Lynn, and others who draw near to God through their disabilities give me hope for the day when my own mental, emotional, and physical decline arrives. They give me hope that when I am hurting, God will be ne and that as my ‘outer man’ wastes away, my ‘inner man’ will be renewed and made strong.”
Choose your images wisely. I am speaking here of literal visual representation—the stock image for a blog post or graphic design for a sermon or sermon series on your church’s website or in the bulletin. Images speak just as powerfully as words do, so choose your visuals carefully. As someone with a not-so-visible disability, I implore you, please move on from the standard wheelchair and/or a child with a visible disability. Disability affects so much more than mobility and children. Look for images or take photos that either represents other disabilities and/or adults or are less literal. If you use a sunset for a blog post about, I don’t know, friendship, then you can use it for an article about disability, too.
As a Church, we still have a lot to do, learn, and talk about when it comes to disability. Learning the right language can help us communicate effectively and be more hospitable and welcoming to people with disabilities.