There are many ways to define ableism. Each definition provides a unique contribution to one of the most painful experiences for those who are disabled and their families. While I could offer my characterization, Ashley Eisenmenger provides a powerful explanation of ableism through Access Living. She writes:
“Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require “fixing” and defines people by their ability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.”
Ableism is as harmful as racism to those with disabilities and their families. It is sinful because it devalues the imago Dei (image of God) inherent within each person because of God’s creative love. It only sees the person with a disability (both physical and invisible) through the lens of their disability and not as a child of God and someone worthy of love and grace. Ableism also only sees the parent or caregiver through their challenges caring for their disabled child or adult.
There is not a day that goes by where I do not encounter some ableist attitude or conversation point directed toward my autistic son or my family. Where I often experience it the most is within the church. I see people treat my child with autism differently than I do my typically-developing child or even other children. My wife and I often hear endless conversations about what we need to do as parents or that my children need us as if we did not know what to do. And, yes, we’ve been told that our experience is the same as any other struggle.
What ableism does within the context of the church is it silently excludes people whose lives force us to consider that not everyone experiences life on the same terms. Those who have experienced ableism within the church do not feel welcomed or loved. That is because what they see does not correlate with the words of love and welcome they hear. The painful reality is that those who desire to be in the church, when they experience ableism, are less likely to trust or connect with a church because of this painful experience.
How can we avoid ableism in the church?
First, the church has to realize it is a problem. While the disability community and its advocates within the church do a great job talking about ableism, it is a silent discussion within the larger body of faith. That has to change if we desire to build a more inclusive community that reflects the love of God. The church must recognize the places it might look down upon individuals with disabilities and their families and repent of those places. Repentance is not simply about admitting guilt. It is also about seeking to change behaviors that led to the sin in the first place.
Second, that change comes by listening to individuals and families about their experiences. Instead of presuming what someone needs, the church needs to take the posture of Jesus when he encountered the blind man and asked, “What can I do for you?” The question gives space for conversation that can lead to understanding. The church must understand how its words and actions, which it may believe are sincere, can be harmful and discriminatory. Change comes by learning how best to engage with the disabled community by listening to their story, adapting to their needs, and walking alongside their families.
Finally, everyone must realize that change is not going to happen overnight. I would love it if I could snap my fingers and ableism vanishes. Unfortunately, we live in a broken and hurting world as we await Christ’s eventual return. Individuals within the disability community will need to be patient, which is hard to do, as people seek to engage us in a better and more holistic way. It also means that the church will need to admit it will fail along the way. Failure is often an attempt at trying to do something right and allows us to learn. When the church struggles to change, it must learn from those mistakes, adapt, and move forward.
Ableism is a serious problem within the body of Christ. It needs greater attention in order to see it eliminated within the church.