A person has an illness or an accident, and suddenly he or she is unable to talk, see, walk, feed themselves, dress, feel pain or a gentle touch on a paralyzed limb. The change leaves the person functionally different. Perhaps the person does not immediately know the full extent of the physical or cognitive loss – the idea of permanent limitation has not yet occurred – one is still in shock from the disabling trauma.
To cope with a disabling illness or injury requires determination on the part of the individual person. One must at the same time begin to acknowledge the impact of the changes and move forward toward what some call acceptance, that is, facing up to the loss of certain physical or cognitive abilities, and working with the emotional trauma resulting from the loss. From the beginning, the newly disabled person should attempt to be as active as possible, thus using abilities retained. The individual must also try to pull from within the spiritual and physical strength needed to deal as absolutely as possible with this new condition. The process of learning to operate with less than full functioning is difficult. It involves the spirit as much as the body.
The shock of personal loss may cause the person involved to feel that he or she has less value now as a human being. However, during rehabilitation, a process designed to restore former physical capacity, there may be assurance and hope. The period of rehabilitation is the time when the individual begins to learn what abilities remain and how to increase those abilities. The person is also taught new skills so that s/he can function with limitations. Support is important at this time; individuals must be loved and encouraged. All involved must realize that time heals much. With hard work, a condition may improve; with time, a person can find a way to continue life in a different and fulfilling way.
Christians with disabilities continue with goals toward Kingdom-building and service to God; God’s work still needs to be done. The existence of both attitudinal and physical barriers in the Church can minimize and sometimes eliminate the possibility of service by persons with disabilities. This exclusion may render the person invisible and reduce the opportunity for others to love, work with, and learn from persons with disabilities.
Attitudes and practices of Christians toward members with disabilities is greatly influenced by the attitudes and practices of the larger society. Persons considered normal are youthful, healthy, and physically mobile. Individuals with disabilities are different and are more often thought to be less than normal. The greatest adversity individuals and their families endure is the negative attitude of society toward their differentness. The negative feelings result in social isolation causing sadness, lower self worth, and guilt on the part of persons with disabilities and their families. The additional stress can lead to separation from the Church.
The Church can include persons with disabilities in worship and fellowship activities. There must be a serious commitment on the part of the congregation to becoming inclusive. Congregations must work to remove both attitudinal and physical barriers. Congregations need to make policy changes to support the belief that the unity of the Church is to be achieved by including all persons, including those with disabilities. Such changes will aid greatly in helping us all to adjust to differences and new life situations.
Finally, ministry to persons newly disabled can be a strong base for the individual. Love and support by family and friends during the early stages of the illness or loss can give hope and may help a person look forward to a useful life. The congregation must become an advocate for its newly disabled members -by both policy and practice. The congregation must enable persons with disabilities to be active, visible participants in Church life. The Congregation and the newly disabled person are thus encouraged to make self-improvement a long range project.
This column is taken from God’s Power and Our Weakness, Consultation on Church Union.