In the first post of this series, we read through a BBC article on how Christians treat people with physical disabilities. If you haven’t yet read it, click here. Today, we’ll zero in on some issues that the article introduces, focussing on the area of physical disability, because that’s what I have experience with.



Though it’s obvious that the author of the article is not himself a Christian, I appreciate the fair and thoughtful approach he’s taken to examining the issues of disability and healing as they’re currently treated in the Christian church. I believe he’s done Christians an immense service by bringing to the fore an issue that has too long gone undiscussed and examined. As a result of this article, Peter, my sister, and I had a long and deep discussion about these things, and I came away with the conviction that I needed to write a series about some of my own insights and experiences as someone who was disabled for a few years.

After my sister read the article, she expressed shock and dismay at the attitude of the man who interrupted the two disabled ladies, mid-conversation, to pray for them. I wasn’t surprised. I’d come across this type of attitude several times.

You see, there’s a brutal math that physically disabled people encounter all the time:

My value = physical ability + spiritual ability + intellectual ability + other talents and abilities

When someone who is able looks at a physically disabled person, whether or not he or she is aware of it, this brutal math is clicking away at its abacus. It evaluates the innate worth of a person, based on one tiny dimension of their existence. Kind people try to battle this inclination. Others do not.

Physically disabled people sometimes buy into this math too. It’s a long and painful process to disconnect your personal value from your lack of physical prowess. In my case, it took almost a year before I was able to see myself as equally valuable, even with my injury. Even then, I still sometimes slipped back into those old thought patterns from time to time.

If you’re someone who faces severe physical limitations, everywhere you go, people force that old math back on you. They do the calculation, and when you come up short they treat you with pity, scorn, or condescension. You become a one-dimensional being, defined only by your physical “shortcomings”. (Even in “progressive” Canada, this is often the case. [1])

Sometimes condescension is not part of the equation, but when people pray for you, they still focus on asking for healing and forget the other parts of your personhood. They ask, “How are you?” in a physical sense and neglect the spiritual and emotional. A friend of mine, Annette, struggled with cancer for several years before succumbing to it. She once said, “I miss being a person. People look at me, and all they see is ‘cancer’.”

Sadly, hurtful attitudes towards physically disabled people are often not diminished in the church, but amplified.

Some Christians subscribe to the idea that if you have enough faith, if you pray hard and long enough, you will be healed. For them, there’s another calculation:

Physical ability = Spiritual ability

Therefore, if you’re not healed, you’re deficient in some way. Your value diminishes further. Remember the original calculation?

Able-bodied person’s value = physical ability + spiritual ability + intellectual ability + other talents and abilities

A disabled Christian often encounters this one:

Physically disabled person’s value = intellectual ability + other talents and abilities

You are half the person they are.

Factoring in the math, the interruption of the man in the BBC article [2] begins to make sense. The half-people weren’t paying attention to him. He wanted to interject something of more value than they had to offer. He didn’t have time to wait around for them. They might have all the time in the world, but he had Things To Do.

Contrast this with the way Jesus treated the blind man, Bartimaeus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked.

“Lord,” came to reply, “I want to see!” [3]

To we who are able, Jesus’ question might seem redundant. After all, what would a blind man request but his sight?

But Jesus, in this vignette, provides the model for how all of us should approach the physically-challenged. We are not to make assumptions about their circumstances, needs, and desires. Instead, we are to treat them the way we ourselves would want to be treated [4]. We are to treat them with dignity and allow them to speak for themselves. They are our equals, not our inferiors.




NOTES

[1] Well do I remember a time in my twenties when I struggled with pain. It was so bad that I couldn’t stand or walk for more than about 5 minutes at a time. When I went to malls, Peter would push me around in a wheelchair. He and I got married sitting down. Once during that period, Peter and I went to an art gallery in Ottawa. I got my customary wheelchair, and went around the gallery, “parking” for a minute or two beside my favourite masterpieces. People stepped in front of me, blocking the art, shaking their heads and tsking in mild exasperation at my presence, like I was an inconveniently-placed piece of furniture. After that experience, I wouldn’t visit an art gallery again until I could walk.

[2] To recap, two women in wheelchairs were having a conversation. An able-bodied man came up to them, determined to pray for them. When they ignored his interruptions in favour of finishing their conversation, he interrupted more forcefully, put his arms on their shoulders, and prayed for them.

[3] Luke 18:41, NLT.

[4] Matthew 7:12.