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Combating Ableism on Disability Awareness Sunday

October 12, 2022
Disability Awareness Week resources
Disability Awareness Week resources

In 1985 synod adopted A Resolution on Disabilities that included several recommendations, one of which requested that all Christian Reformed congregations, classes, and educational institutions sponsor events to celebrate a Disability Week each year in October. This year, that week kicked off on Oct. 10 and will conclude with Disability Awareness Sunday on Oct. 16.

“The focus of Disability Concerns this year is to address the harmful effects of ableism, which occurs when we value people without disabilities over people with disabilities,” said Lindsay Wieland Capel, who leads the CRCNA’s Disability Concerns ministry.

Ableism can be institutional or individual, blatant or subtle. It can be seen in attitudes and actions, and it can be intentional or unintentional. It also shows up in the words and phrases we use.

“Combating ableism is a humbling endeavor. Even those of us who have built careers around disability advocacy — and people who identify as disabled — have much to learn about how ableism shows up in our thoughts and behaviors,” Wieland Capel explained.

Having worked in mental health in her previous place of employment, Wieland Capel said that she has begun trying to cut certain words out of her vocabulary because she learned that they add to mental health stigma. She shifted to using words like “wild” or “unexpected” instead of crazy or insane and learned to say “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.”

“As I continue to learn about ableism, I am realizing that there are a lot more words I should find substitutes for because they can be unhelpful, triggering, or sometimes even harmful to people with disabilities,” she said.

Wieland Capel said that this can include using dumb to mean “unintelligent,” or metaphors such as turned a blind eye to mean “ignored,” or deaf to an idea to mean “stubborn.”

“These words and phrases are so ingrained in society that it can feel rather countercultural to make these shifts, but our training on ableism has convicted me that it is work worth committing to,” she said.

Bias toward ableism can occur in our congregations as well. For example:

  • Families who have children with disabilities have sometimes been told that they should find a different church that can better meet their needs.
  • Some pastors have feared being misunderstood by their congregations because they do not feel it’s safe for them to disclose a mental-health diagnosis.
  • People with disabilities are often denied the opportunity to serve because their gifts are obscured by people’s impression of those disabilities.
  • Churches sometimes prioritize an overall image, ease, or thrift over making accommodations that will help people with disabilities join them for worship and participate in ministries.

“The slogan for Disability Concerns is everybody belongs, everybody serves. Our theology celebrates the image of God in each person and emphasizes the vital contributions of each member, but so often congregations don’t live this out,” said Wieland Capel. Learning about ableism and making conscious decisions to overcome it are important in living out what it means to be the church.

To help individuals and congregations overcome ableism and commemorate Disability Awareness Week, Disability Concerns has shared several resources.

“We are encouraging everyone to read our book of the year, My Body Is Not a Prayer Request by Amy Kenny,” said Wieland Capel.

Individuals can read it on their own or start a book club at their church. Churches who host a book club can request up to 10 free books, thanks to a partnership with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Disability Concerns will also be hosting an online discussion with Amy Kenny on the evening of Jan. 26, 2023.

Congregations can make use of a bulletin insert, prayer of confession, prayer for each other, or a Charge of Dedication during their Disability Awareness Sunday service.

To dig even deeper, church members are encouraged to watch and share the six-hour training session on ableism that Disability Concerns hosted in August.