Do you know what it means to be an ableist?
An ableist assumes that someone with a disability cannot function or do things in society as someone without a disability. Ableism presumes that a person with a disability is incapable of getting a job, getting married, or functioning in society.
We see aspects of ableism throughout social media. Often a video or social media post that focuses on a person with a disability doing something that seems “normal” goes viral. The comments are almost always “Look at how amazing this is” or “I cannot believe they could do that.” Ableism presumes distance between the disability community and the rest of society because it believes that those with a disability cannot, even if it is not factually true.
Research and discussion about ableism are often limited to only the specific person with a disability, and rightly so. Yet, parents and caregivers can also experience ableism.
In this case, caregiver-based ableism suggests that the parent or caregiver cannot have a typical life or function in society because of the demands of caring for this individual. Society fosters the perception that raising a child with a disability is a burden and projects that onto the family. At the same time, ableist projects itself in the failure to include or involve a parent or a caregiver in society out of the belief that the person cannot do anything more than to provide care for that individual.
In both aspects of ableism, society presumes what a person with a disability or a caregiver can or cannot do without ever communicating with that person. It creates separation where communication and acceptance are needed.
Unfortunately, ableism is a problem within the church. We should expect the church to be a place of love and acceptance. That is not often the case. The church is too often a place of judgment and presumption towards individuals with a disability and caregivers.
I experience this both as someone who deals with anxiety and also as someone who raises an autistic individual. Through my struggles with anxiety, I have experienced the church as being cold or dismissive. Because it is often not their experience, I have seen the church not want to understand what it is like to live with constant stress that you cannot fully control while seemingly functioning with typical expectations. At the same time, I experience people in the church presume what my family can and cannot do because we raise children with needs. I have experienced church members often say that “we have too much on our plate,” even when that is not our reality.
When we promote ableism in the church, we prevent the community of grace from accepting and working with individuals with a disability and their parents or caregivers. Ableism is the counter to the witness of loving God and loving our neighbor.
To move away from ableism, we have to see the person and caregiver for who they are. The church must examine its perceptions of people with disabilities and their parents or caregivers. The church needs to listen to the stories and realities of the person with a disability and their caregivers. Doing so will enable the church to come alongside the families instead of making assumptions about them.
The church should be the one place where ableism does not exist because we believe that we should treat each other as we would want people to treat us. For this to happen, we have to listen to the disability community, and their caregivers, and move away from aspects of ableism in whatever form they present themselves.