Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Disability Through a Lens of Inclusion:
A Theological Framework for Welcoming All
What does the term “all are welcome” mean relative to faith communities and persons with developmental disabilities? Does it mean individuals with developmental and other disabilities are affirmed and valued as active, contributing participants in the daily life of the faith community? Or does it instead mean they are primarily recipients of “charity” and attitudes and actions that may be experienced as patronizing, condescending, or even shaming? Does it mean they have access physically and programmatically to all aspects of the community’s life – including participation in sacramental or passage rites such as Bat/Bar Mitzvah, communion, baptism, membership – or must they stay on the fringes, isolated by segregated seating and restricted to self-contained faith development educational classes?
The response of a congregation – be it a synagogue, church, mosque or temple – to persons with developmental disabilities will vary based on people’s knowledge of and sensitivity toward individuals with developmental disabilities, as well as on the theological lenses through which their beliefs are filtered. Every religious tradition is pluralistic, meaning that within it can be found a wide range of interpretations of the tradition’s response to persons with disabilities. In most, a perspective that God accepts all, calls all, and can use all exists, but the ways in which this is applied when it comes to persons with disabilities vary widely. There can be found theologies of disability that sustain exclusion and a view of individuals with disabilities as “other,” and theologies of disability that support inclusion and view persons with disabilities as equals with all other humans within and outside the worshiping community.
The National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) Committee on Disabilities has developed a position statement (NCCC, 1998) that can be adapted and applied within many religious traditions as a lens through which the theological response to disability can be viewed. The overarching guiding principles excerpted from it are the following:
- All people are created in the image of God.God creates all human beings in the divine image or likeness. This image is not a measurable characteristic or set of characteristics. God’s image is reflected uniquely in each person.
- All people are called by God.God calls all human beings to express the divine image through their unique characteristics. Each person’s characteristics, including disabilities, are inseparable and valuable features of the unique, indivisible person.
- All people have special gifts.God supplies all human beings with the unique gifts needed to obey the divine call. The gifts God has given to each person are needed by all other people, and no one is dispensable or unnecessary.
- All people are invited to participate in God’s ministry.God invites all human beings to rely on and participate in the ministry of the church. God continually empowers each member to reflect the divine image in ways that will serve and benefit the church and the broader community.
In the light of these theological principles, all human beings, including those among us with disabilities, are entitled to rights in faith communities and society. A life of dignity and respect includes such rights as access to education, health care, useful work, and recreation, as well as the right to friendship, spiritual nurture, freedom, and self-expression. The rights of each person, including people with disabilities, are equal to and balanced by the rights of others. The human community in all its forms is accountable to God to protect these civil and human rights, and God requires communities of believers to give spiritual and moral leadership to society in protecting these rights. Our religious communities must exercise leadership by public preaching and teaching, but even more by their examples as inclusive communities of faith that use the gifts of all members.
In looking at their responses to persons with disabilities, faith communities are urged to consider these principles as one lens through which to examine interpretations of sacred texts; the practice of sacraments, rituals, and rites of passage; and other aspects of belief and practice that serve to either marginalize or include persons with disabilities. How do we understand “all are welcome,” and what will we do to ensure that it is so?
National Council of Churches of Christ. (1998). NCCC human rights: The fulfillment of life in the social order.