When I moved to Vancouver to attend Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology, I worked in youth and children’s ministry. One night we were discussing the body of Christ and I was talking to the youth about a need to accept people’s differences, how we had to work together to understand people’s gifts, and that sometimes we had to look hard to find them.
I had often listened to the youth for their wisdom, especially around issues of diversity. People with disabilities were integrated into their everyday lives at school and play. I didn’t have very much experience with this in my own childhood. When I said “we have to accept differences”, they said, “No.” I was shocked into silence. We sat there in awkward silence until one of the youth finally broke it. “Steph”, he said, “we don’t have to accept differences, we have to appreciate them.” Then they all started to speak about appreciating differences by allowing everyone to share their strengths and weaknesses knowing that together, we all have gifts to offer. None of us have all the gifts, and those who don’t are not just broken and defective. We all – together – have the gifts to create a more loving world.
Everyone is an individual and it is crucial that we get to know one another before making assumptions about each other’s ability. We learn from each other and expand our worldview when we appreciate each other‘s differences, keeping in mind that knowing one person with a disability is just that, knowing that one person. Generalizing and stereotyping all people in wheelchairs refuses to recognize that everyone who uses a chair has a different experience, support system, diagnosis, and attitude. If we listen to one another’s stories and honour the experiences being shared, we can determine together what needs to be done to make room for diversity.
Respect and reconciliation are paramount for breaking down “isms” like ableism. When making decisions and planning for accessibility, remember “Nothing for us without us.” Those who do not have a disability shouldn’t make decisions for those who do without including the people they are trying to “help” in the decision-making process. The “politics of help” and “toxic charity” cause good-hearted people who want to help, subconsciously see those who need it seem less fortunate and pitiful. Very often, this type of charity encourages people to help for the praise that doing good garners, instead of being motivated by a relationship among equals who respond to each other’s needs mutually and complementarily.
Relationships of respect are required to truly know what changes are needed in an inaccessible environment. “Inspirational Porn” refers to the promotion of those who are most poor and pathetic to pull on people’s heartstrings and receive funding, rather than suggesting that we need justice for all. It creates a picture of the neediness, incompleteness, and incompetence of people with disabilities instead of acknowledging the inherent worth and respect of all people.
Shalom is a Hebrew concept that includes our understanding of peace as more than the absence of war and noise. Shalom includes equality and dignity for all, the desire for safety and harmony, reconciliation, and wholeness. When we learn to listen well to each other, to become aware of the “isms” in our lives, then we can reach Shalom. We’re going to recognize the deepest meaning of peace. We’re going to appreciate differences.
When I moved to the northern-most tip of Newfoundland, St. Anthony, I used to drive through a small community on the west coast that had wheelchair ramps attached to an amazing number of houses. One day, I stopped at the local fuel station and asked the attendant if there was an unusual number of people with disabilities in this community, in particular those who use wheelchairs. The person behind the counter smiled. “No”, she said, “we have one woman in town who uses a wheelchair and we wanted to be sure she could visit all of us at our own houses”. That is a new picture of Shalom.
“Access and building standards” would require a ramp be built on her own home. “Compassion” would be that neighbours stopped by to visit her at her house. In this town, they all built ramps so that she had the ability to stop by for a cup of coffee and a visit. She wasn’t isolated and waiting for somebody to drop by. Her visits were important to her neighbours, too. Space and priority provided for her to be included and to be able to offer her gifts. We have so many ways that we can listen well. So many ways that we can go above and beyond basic accessibility.
We also have ways that continue to be hurtful. Some things don’t change very much or very quickly. I’ve heard many times in many churches that no one in a wheelchair comes here so we don’t have to be accessible. Being able-bodied can be temporary. Ableism accepts new members. I joined the ranks of ableism at age 19.. What I have found out is that barriers are always going to be there. We will try to break them down and that’s a valid and noble goal, but the barriers are more attitudinal than physical. If the people can’t understand accessibility or people with disabilities or care not to do the work of inclusion, nothing will help or change.
However, as we make small adaptations together we can see the common experiences in all those who have been wronged and excluded from the justice and dignity throughout their personal lives. Wronged and excluded by individuals, and by the systems that have put them down and forced them out of mainstream society. As we attempt to soar over the barriers of ableism, we need to recognize the hurt and the anger people carry because of the years of not feeling valid or valued; the years of people seeing us as less worthy and worthwhile.
When we build relationships with respect; when we listen well to each other, we will soar above the barriers in this world.
Isaiah 40: 31 – “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint”.
We will learn to appreciate one another’s differences and we will learn to hope together in the Lord, for when we can soar above the barriers we will all soar on wings of compassion, freedom, and grace into a future of Shalom. May it be so.