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8 themes in faith and disability

Becoming a church of belonging for people with disabilities


Ableism is to disability as racism is to ethnicity—a set of beliefs or practices that devalue, discriminate, and oppress people with disabilities. This subtle and pervasive bias assumes non-disabled people are “normal” and people with disabilities represent an undesirable deviation from this norm and need to be “fixed.” It can come out as:

  • A charity model where people “feel bad” and want to help but don’t always see a capable adult or child.
  • A view that people with disabilities are unable to do things successfully or for themselves. A low expectation, prejudging what a person can and cannot do.
  • A neglect to include people with disabilities in leadership and decision-making.

Disability advocacy affects attitudes, social relationships, and power relations. Within a church context, trusting in the Holy Spirit (our Advocate and Helper), disability advocacy carries on Jesus’ work so that all people may be welcomed within the body of Christ and encouraged to use their gifts in ministry. Advocacy:

  • Stands with people who have disabilities—especially in faith.
  • Asks how we can better support children and adults with disabilities and their families.
  • Supports churches and faith communities to FULLY include children and adults with disabilities.

The desire to belong is not a special need but a human need, much like food and shelter. When someone is accepted as a member or vital part, they are noticed, known, and missed. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in dealing with life’s challenges. Building a sense of belonging requires active effort and practice. If you can answer yes to these questions, you know you belong:

  • Does it feel good to be in this space?
  • Am I helping out or contributing?
Mental wellness

Mental wellness is evidenced when individuals realize their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, and are able to contribute to their community. Emphasizing mental wellness can help overcome the stigma of perceiving and treating people with mental illnesses differently from those with physical illnesses. Focusing on mental wellness:

  • Acknowledges the value and role of prevention and suggests that mental health is for everyone!
  • Doesn’t single out the 1 in 5 people experiencing a current mental health challenge.
  • Provides churches with a positive, proactive, tangible opportunity to offer support while normalizing and understanding the realities of mental illnesses.
Person-first Language

The way we talk about disability keeps changing. Rather than identifying people with their disability, such as “the disabled,” person-first language conveys respect by emphasizing the person first, created in the image of God. Person-first language emphasizes the individuality, equality, and dignity of people with disabilities. Using it is a good starting point because it:

  • Emphasizes people first and disability second.
  • Is used by many people with disabilities today.
Removing barriers

Disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments AND attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Addressing the barriers that hinder persons living with various impairments in their day to day lives paves the way for greater participation. Removing barriers:

  • Allows people to have the chance to be successful and to thrive.
  • Takes away the obstacles (physical or social) so that people can be seen, appreciated, respected, and involved.
Social ramps

A social ramp helps change the social environment so that people who had formerly been excluded from a group have access. Someone who has a difficult time with the high social-skill demands that are common in churches may long deeply for friendships and will likely need someone to be a social ramp into other relationships. We build social ramps by:

  • Helping people be seen by others and become connected with them.
  • Networking with people with disabilities who struggle to make connections AND with people who struggle to connect with persons with disabilities.
Universal design

Universal design builds facilities and communications that can be accessed by the widest range of people possible, regardless of their age, size, needs, ability, or disability. Universal design considers people’s diverse needs and abilities on the front end of the design process so that products, services, and environments don’t need to be adapted later. Universal design:

  • Makes sure the space (sidewalk, doorway, restroom, chancel, platform…) has a ramp and accessible print materials—just two examples—so that everyone can participate.
  • Utilizes responsive design, engaging with each person (with or without a disability) as an individual.

Why have a disability advocate?

Disabilities often keep people from participating fully in the church—sometimes a disability keeps someone from participating at all. A disability advocate helps your congregation welcome and include people with disabilities and their families.

One in five people has a disability. That’s a lot of people a disability advocate can help your church welcome, disciple, learn from, and watch lead.

We’re here to help

Becoming an advocate is a commitment. But you won’t be doing it on your own. RCA Disability Concerns will help you get the training and resources you need. And you’ll be joining a network of disability advocates who support each other.

Contact us to learn more
What does a disability advocate do?
  • Encourages the full welcome and belonging of people with disabilities in church life.
  • Identifies the needs of church members living with a disability and works with church leaders to respond in appropriate ways.
  • Connects church members and leaders with resources (from the RCA and the community) that support belonging.
  • Advocates for the adoption of a disability policy by church leaders and assists in its implementation.
This initiative is part of Transformed & Transforming, the RCA's 15-year vision for ministry.
Your gifts make this mission possible.