Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in Bird Treacy’s weekly email Wiggles & Wonder on Tuesday, March 21. Bird is a regular contributor to Grow Christians and this post is shared with her permission. To subscribe to the Wiggles & Wonder email, click this link. Each week I am amazed at how many resources Bird includes from thoughtful reflections on the Sunday lectionary to formation ideas to personal musings from a “progressive church lady.” —Allison, ed.
Last week, as priests and pastors and children’s ministers and people of all stripes working in churches attempted to make sense of the miraculous healing at the heart of the lectionary, some extremely important questions came up. But, for want of a world that feels comfortable talking about disability, things got messy. So let’s start with the essentials.
Disability is not only not a dirty word, it’s one of the only ways to avoid the damage that comes from using euphemisms to describe our own or other people’s lives. No one has referred to my sexuality as “an alternative lifestyle” since my grandmother when I was in high school. Inevitably, though, someone is going to utter the phrase “differently abled” or “special needs” when disability comes up, and I will feel their discomfort wash over me.
Amidst the anxiety around disability that was front and center last week came some questions of particular interest to the church school space. In particular, how do we tell stories like last week’s Gospel, how do we teach about disability, without doing harm? It’s hard enough to tackle these stories in a sermon with adults who have diverse life experiences that will inevitably include disability and who understand metaphor. Still, it doesn’t. have to be as complicated as people make it out to be.
I’m working on some resources for telling these stories and doing this work more generally (I’ll keep you posted), there are a number of simple places to start:
- Look at your community. If you aren’t seeing disability representation (particularly among the younger 2/3rds because we will all become disabled if we live long enough), then there are probably some really good reasons why. Is your building physically accessible? How do you respond to questions about access (auditory access, ASL interpretation, access to the altar, low scent needs, the list goes on)? How do you support people who may not behave in ways you expect? Is your website accessible (hint: that’s more complicated to execute than you may think)?Getting your congregation moving in the right direction on matters of access and inclusion can mean bringing in outside parties to talk to your community, provide trainings, and help you develop best practices. Amy Kenny, author of My Body Is Not A Prayer Request, offers a great checklist for starting to think through these topics.
- Start With Stories. One conversation I was blessed to have last week was about what to do in place of what are sometimes called “disability simulations.” Blindfolding people or asking someone to try to navigate a space using a wheelchair is not actually a realistic or helpful way of helping people develop an understanding of disabled people’s lived experience. But just like we use stories to understand other topics, like what people’s lives are like in other parts of the world, there are neutral and helpful stories that we can use to normalize disabilities. Some of my favorites that aren’t trying to be inspirational, but are open and informative, are Just Ask by Sonia Sotamayor and A Day With No Words by Tiffany Hammond, but it’s also important to learn where disability is hiding in the stories we already tell.In Godly Play, for example, we have a story about Harriet Tubman. We can include Harriet Tubman’s brain injury in her story as simply something else about her – not as something that changes how we view her accomplishments, but as another piece of information. Where is disability in the stories we’re already telling and how can we make it visible?
There is always more to say, but as we continue to draw closer to Holy Week, we are all functioning at capacity, so let’s leave it here for now while remembering that we have work to do. And I’ll keep pondering whether my body is a means of grace – particularly for others, as the stories can make it seem. Or if this body, as it is, is a site of thanksgiving, not when it is restored in glory, but today, too.