Disability

Have you also assembled a jigsaw puzzle and found a piece that would just not fit in anywhere? After struggling for a long time you decide the piece ended up here by coincidence. It actually belongs in another box. Much later, to your surprise, you find the perfect place for the odd piece. You realise your jigsaw puzzle would have been incomplete without this particular piece!

People with disability often experience that they are the odd piece of society that just does not fit in. We see people through glasses of functionality and productivity. Your worth and dignity are ascertained through the “value” that you add. In our health and wealth culture anyone with a disability simply does not meet the standards. If you cannot contribute to the economy, you are regarded as a lesser being. You become a piece of the jigsaw puzzle and are merely pushed out or ignored.

Most of us have had such experiences of not belonging, not fitting in and not being up to standard. These experiences cause us to doubt our value as human beings. It leaves us feeling unsure, lonely and sad – afraid to try anything. We usually choose to avoid people and situations that make us feel this way.

People with disability often have no choice. Their road is full of barriers, which remind them they are different and part of another jigsaw puzzle in a different box. Their participation is restricted and they are stripped of their dignity. Examples of such barriers that restrict participation are:

  • The blind need braille to be able to read – even for labels on groceries!
  • Many deaf people use sign-language to communicate. Few people know sign-language and therefore deaf people depend on interpreters. Even during medical examinations or an appointment with their child’s teacher, they need to communicate through someone else.
  • Buildings with no lifts and/or wheelchair ramps leave people dependent on a wheelchair helpless and powerless – stripped of their dignity.
  • People who are intellectually impaired need supervision and care. They can easily be seen as a burden and side-tracked to centres where they can be looked after. Often our well-meaning “care” for people with disability is a way to exclude them from a society that considers itself as “normal”.

What does the Bible say?

There are passages in the Bible where it is clear that the Jews considered people with disability unsuitable to fit into God’s jigsaw puzzle. We find such an example in John 9:1-12 where Jesus healed the blind man. The Jews thought if people are healthy and comply with their standards, then they fit into God’s jigsaw puzzle. Those who do not comply are part of the Evil One’s picture. Everything that is bad and difficult comes, according to them, from the Evil One. If it goes well with you, it is thanks to God. If it goes bad with you, it is as a result of the sins in your life. They argued that that is your punishment. Jesus says they are wrong. Jesus did not ask where the man’s blindness came from. He asks where the man’s blindness leads to. Jesus declares that the man is blind so that God’s works might be seen. Jesus explains the man is definitely part of God’s jigsaw puzzle.

Jesus’ picture

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul pictured God’s kingdom by using the image of a body. In the first 11 verses Paul explains that there are different parts which are gifts of one body. He emphasises that the same Spirit gives all parts and for the same purpose. From verse 12 Paul speaks about the different gifts and how important each is – the one cannot exist without the other. The strength of the body lies in the variety. It makes good sense. But then we hear the surprising message: “… those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (verse 22).

What is the indispensable contribution of those ones who can hardly look after themselves? The picture that Paul paints is not of a body that looks after the seemingly weak ones. It is a picture where the body learns from them what life and community are about. It appears as if our value is not about what we can do or produce, but who we are.

We are valuable because God created us in his image. Our value is intrinsic to our humanness.

In our togetherness with people with serious disability, those who can only be and can do very little, we are freed from our compulsion to produce. Life becomes involuntarily slower and more peaceful. We discover the joy of small things. We discover our own humanness in dependence on others. What a valuable discovery for us all. After all, sometime or other we come face to face with our own vulnerability. There comes a day in our lives where we cannot go further and become dependent on others. The gospel says that that day is not the day I have to start living less. That is the day I discover that life is about much more than doing something! Precisely those who appear as the weakest are important, because they save us from the necessity to excel and set free the dignity in and amongst us.

Personal action

How do we prove to people with disability that they are part of God’s jigsaw puzzle? They ask:

Don’ts:

  • Don’t feel sorry for me
  • Don’t use destructive language about me
  • Don’t exclude me
  • Don’t underestimate me
  • Don’t treat me special.

Dos:

  • Be my friend
  • Spend time with me
  • Speak to me and not down to me
  • Know my dreams
  • Know my frustrations.

The church’s action

The church, especially congregations, is challenged to let the gifts of those with disabilities come into blossom and to encourage their contributions – to make sure they have a place in God’s picture. How does your congregation measure up? Perhaps you could test it by ticking the following boxes.

When was the last time a person with disability in your congregation:

  • got confirmed?
  • served in the church council?
  • welcomed you at the church door?
  • sang in the choir or backing group?
  • served as catechist?
  • delivered a testimony during a public worship?
  • sat at the communion-table?
  • participated in a church camp?
  • was member of a small group or cell?
  • went with an outreach program?

One Good Friday morning it was a man with Down syndrome who helped carry the cross out of the church. He embodied his inclusion in God’s jigsaw puzzle. Even more, his presence confirmed that Christ had to hang helplessly on a cross to deliver us from our fears of vulnerability and imperfection.

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