Thought for the Week – Disability History Month

Lucy discusses the spirit of Advent and the importance of inclusion and diversity.

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Lucy Winkett

Advent is coming: the season of the prophets and stark warnings about the end times. It’s not so much a four week lead up to Christmas, but rather a season all of its own, a time of truth telling, contemplation, facing sometimes hard realities. And the church’s season of Advent coincides with a season founded in 2011, which is Disability History Month. Today I want to tell you about my friend M. We met when we both lived in Birmingham, and she moved there with her husband.

I still hear her from time to time in my head, although she died one Christmas past.  A lifelong campaigner for the rights of people who, like her, used wheelchairs, she set about educating those of us who were training for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

I learned from her that there are some impairments – especially if they are physical or visible – that cause society to disable the person who has that impairment.  Why, she would often challenge, why is the world organised around people who walk on their two legs just because they are in the majority?  Stairs are helpful of course to gain height in a building but they are an architectural choice. So are pavements with kerbs. So are steps into shops.  So are ramps. So are lifts.  M had been part of making a campaign film which I have never forgotten. It imagined a world where people who moved around in wheelchairs were in the vast majority. People who were using two legs to travel around were in the minority. Ceilings were low in buildings, appropriate for anyone sitting down. But for standing up people, they had to live in buildings that bent them over. Gradually over time, products were designed to sell to the standing people – pads for their heads they kept banging on the ceiling – cushions for their bruised knees.  Gradually they became so bent over that an industry grew up to break their backs so that they could fit in; the whole medical establishment became focussed on making an upright body fit into a building that was designed around people who were sitting down. Stairs were illegal.

M’s film imagined a world that was organised on entirely different principles from the built environment – and not just the historic built environment – that we live in today.

There’s something of an Advent spirit in this sort of re-imagining. The prophets we read during Advent not so much predicted the future, like a soothsayer, but rather revealed the truth underneath the injustices of the present time.

Recent research during 2020 revealed that people with impairments or people who identify as those with a disability make up 20 % of the working population in the UK, but not one senior manager or board level executive at a FTSE 100 company disclosed a disability.  Companies are much less likely to report on the diversity of their workforce with regard to disability than ethnicity or gender. And a higher than expected number of people when asked to disclose an impairment or a disability tick the box that says ‘prefer not to say’.

Much impairment is hidden and there is stigma around talking openly about for example hearing loss or neuro diversity or sight impairment or any number of other impairments that are classed as disability by a society that still, whatever it says, holds up some kind of impossible and frankly unattractive perfection as the goal of human life.

As ever, as on many other issues of inclusion and diversity, the church has a lot to learn and a lot to change.

Not least the way we do our theology. And examine the damaging theology that can underly some Christian belief and practice: the theology of purity and perfection.  A church community is not, should not be a place where we have to put on our best face and behave well.  At a very fundamental level, if church can be a place where you and I can disclose our frailties, our vulnerabilities, then our own impairments will become part of who we are to each other and won’t attract the often rather violently felt ‘judgement dressed up as pity’ that people with visible impairments often experience when someone else assumes they know what they need.

I have always loved Jesus’s question to Bartimeaus who was by the side of the road, unable to see, calling out to him.  Looking at this person whose sight was impaired, Jesus didn’t assume what he wanted. He didn’t just march up to him and assume he wanted to see: he asked him ‘what is it that you want me to do for you?’.  An open question that left the agency with him, and the decision with him, and placed Jesus at Bartimaeus’s service.

As the brilliant theologian Nancy Eisland writes, because the risen Christ is both wounded and undefeated, with wounds visible, this brings disability into the heart of God and Jesus once again lives at and embraces the margin not the centre. Christ’s body after resurrection is not unblemished, is not a kind of congealing perfection, as no person’s body is perfect. That there is disability in the very heart of the nature of God is a theology that can challenge our assumptions about so-called ‘perfection’ and show us another way. It will overturn assumptions about whose body is good and what body is mine.  God makes movement and gesture visible in the life of Christ. How does God move? Part of that movement and gesture is that God becomes limited physically at the same time as being utterly free spiritually.

Are there ways to go further – can I myself for example accept my own impairment – small in the scheme of things – which is tinnitus. A constant high-pitched whistle that if I take time to listen to it can send me very distractedly and distressingly inwards.  Long periods of silence which are necessary for my spiritual health can be a challenge for my mental health when the noise in my head gets too loud.

Can I accept this, as I have been taught, as a sign that God is in all things. Really?  All things? No exceptions?

This level of prayer and acceptance is God-level inclusion. Beyond the language of rights or improvement programmes for inclusion. It is beyond the language of diversity and inclusion.

If you are hiding your impaired self in a cloud of shame or anxiety, if the tender hopes you carry for someone to get it – or get you – are too often dashed in company and in church for you to risk saying it all again, then I want to invite you to help us as a church listen to you. Not interrupt with solutions, or platitudes, but listen.

None of this will be enough because while practical choices are important, such as loop systems, and ramps, lifts, acknowledgement of neuro diversity, and many other sometimes hidden impairments, the theology of our disabled God is more radical than this. Jesus on the cross, and visibly impaired risen from the dead: this is God’s body-language.

This Advent, in this season of revelation and truth, after the example of Theresa of Avila, maybe it’s a season again to remember that the truth of the gospel is that your hands, your feet, your mind, your eyes, your heart, your skin, your body is Christ’s body interdependent in creation today; with daily opportunities to bless, to bring to birth, and together to be God’s body.

In the name of our impaired and disabled God, do not be ashamed, and do not be afraid.  Your body belongs here – in life and in death – just as it is and just as you are.