Valuing our Kinfolk with Disabilities: Legislation and Heart Transformation
Years ago, in a disability studies class, I read Joseph Shapiro’s No Pity: People with
Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.
This book gave me a sense of the history of the movement for disability rights in the United States – a powerful narrative of struggle, creativity, and resourcefulness that I had heard little about before then.
One point, in particular, has come to mind again and again as I now both teach disability
theology and pastor an ability-inclusive new worshiping community where disabled and
non-disabled people lead and participate together.
Shapiro writes, …disabled people got their rights without dramatic Freedom Rides, church bombings or “I Have a Dream” speeches to stir the conscience of a guilty nation. African-Americans had changed a nation’s attitudes and then won civil rights law. But for disabled Americans the reverse was true. Now disabled people fear that a society that did the right thing – but without the benefit of significant consciousness-raising – has begun to question those rights. 1
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was groundbreaking legislation passed in 1990
that prohibited discrimination and paved a pathway for accessibility for people with disabilities in a number of important areas – employment, public buildings and transportation, telecommunications, and more.
But this legislation was passed without the same level of widespread national educating, discourse, and publicized moments of injustice and struggle that had preceded the 1964 civil rights legislation (not that everyone was on the same page in 1964, but there was significantly more national attention and conversation leading up to it).
And in many ways, a widespread conversation like this around disability is only just beginning to happen in our country.
This kind of heart transformation, reorientation of imagination, and clarion call for
justice, is the domain of the Spirit, and is a crucial place where Christian communities can
As followers of Jesus, we already know that everyone – disabled and non-disabled –is created in the image of God, beloved, gifted, and called; and that it’s good for everyone when more folks have access to share their gifts through leadership and participation.
Churches sometimes think the way forward is to create a separate “disability ministry”
that gets framed as an extensive project needing staff, budget, experts, and lots of participants; typically feeling out of reach for most churches.
But from my experience and research, a experiences deeper overall transformation when it creatively finds ways to create an inclusive, accessible community welcoming the voices and gifts of people with beautifully diverse bodies and brains altogether.
In these relationships of mutuality, transformation happens and people can begin to broaden their perspectives.
There are lots of places a congregation might begin (or continue) that don’t require any
additional staff, money, or expertise. In this (seriously non-comprehensive) list of examples,
notice if any feel right for your community, and let these ideas inspire more of your own:
• Learn from the voices, perspectives, suggestions, and gifts of people with disabilities
already in your community.
• When talking about pursuing God’s justice, include issues facing people with diverse
• Read books as a community by folks with disabilities (including pastors and theologians).
• Explore the scriptures about disability, and notice fresh ways to read them when you
include interpretive angles from disabled readers.
• Introduce more multisensory practices during worship (even online worship) that invite
participants to engage with more than just their verbal acumen.
The ADA celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and unfortunately, Shapiro’s
observation is still too accurate.
But God is in the business of changing hearts, and we can till the soil where God is at work.
Then by the ADA’s 40th anniversary (or sooner!), we will be able to testify to ways the Spirit, always making all things new, has worked in faith communities around the world to truly value and celebrate the unique contributions of the diverse, beloved bodies and brains God has created in God’s people.
Encouraging us to recognize that we don’t work for accessibility in our churches and broader society simply because the ADA demands it, but because our hearts have been transformed and we know the joy of communities that welcome full participation and leadership of our disabled kinfolk.
Rev. Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox is founding pastor of Beloved Everybody Church (Los Angeles, CA), an ability-inclusive new worshiping community in Los Angeles where people with and without intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities lead and participate together.
Her book Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church (IVP Academic, 2019) examines how Jesus’ healing in the Gospels, too often used in ways that wound people with disabilities, might point a way toward real healing and mutual thriving. An excellent free resource on the book with discussion questions and other materials, great for individual use or with congregations, is available now at equip.pcusa.org.
1 Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York City: Broadway Books, 1994) 323-324.