The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
If disabled people were a nation, they would be the third most populous in the world (after China and India). Surely they deserve for us to keep fighting with them to change perceptions, change reality, and yes, change the world.
Acceptance (noun), defined by the English Living Dictionary as:
1. The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered.
2. The process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable.
3. Agreement with or belief in an idea or explanation.
4. Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.
Acceptance is a word that has several meanings, and which can mean different things to different people… Within the context of a blog about children and young people with additional needs these meanings can be complex and very individual, but I found the dictionary definitions shown above strangely familiar; maybe you will too…
1. “The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered…”
When someone becomes the parent of a child with additional needs, lots of things change and life will never be the same again. Many dreams and hopes are shattered, lost forever, or simply changed.
When James was a baby I dreamed of him striding out to open in bat for England in an Ashes test match (in 2002 we were desperate!), finding the cure for cancer, or being the first human to set foot on Mars… All highly unlikely anyway, but rather than them being slowly eroded or changed as most parental dreams might be, they were all snatched away in an instant when James was aged 2½ and someone very carefully, very kindly, but very seriously said “James has Autism, and will have associated learning difficulties”. That James has subsequently added Epilepsy and Anxiety Disorder to his list of diagnoses hasn’t really altered that reality.
Did we love him any the less? No, of course not… Did we reject him? No, he was still our son and now needed us to be there for him all the more… We consented to receive the hard news that James had additional needs, to undertake a lifetime of caring for him, and to dream new dreams about our future together… accepting that things would now be very different, and determined to make the best of it!
2. “The process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable…”
One thing that people of any age with a disability or additional needs, or their families, want is to be treated the same, viewed the same, have access to the same opportunities and experiences as anyone else. For their life to be valid, to have meaning, to be received in the same way as their peers.
The reality can be painfully different, with rejection and exclusion common, misunderstanding rife, and opportunities or experiences restricted or non-existent. “Persons with disabilities, on average as a group, are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.” (source: World Bank, Sept 2016)
We will always receive James as valid, he is more than adequate to us, he will forever be entirely suitable and accepted as our son, and we will not allow his life choices to be restricted by others. The situation is very different for so many though… if disabled people were a nation, they would be the third most populous in the world (after China and India). Surely they deserve for us to keep fighting with them to change perceptions, change reality, and yes change the world!
3. “Agreement with or belief in an idea or explanation…”
The idea of a world where everyone, regardless of their ability or disability, is considered equal, is accepted as just as valid as anyone else, is viewed in the same way as their peers, having the same opportunities as anyone else, shouldn’t be far fetched, and I don’t believe that it is.
I believe that things are shifting, that both within the church and in society at large perceptions are changing. I campaign for that change, working to make a difference for people with additional needs and disabilities, especially children and young people. More and more people, including many of you reading this, are joining with me in agreement with that belief and idea. Accepting the challenge to model and demonstrate acceptance, to spread the message of inclusion and belonging, to be catalysts for change.
Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). If disabled people represent the world’s third biggest nation, let’s accept that idea and in belief go and share the love of Jesus with everyone, bringing hope, bringing change…
4. “Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation…”
We can choose to accept a situation, or choose not to accept it but to change it. I cannot accept a church that doesn’t include disabled children or my disabled friends. I cannot accept a church that thinks tradition or buildings are more important than people. Where the sound of a child with Autism is drowned out by ‘tuts’, where the love of Jesus is replaced by condemning stares.
There are many wonderful people and organisations who won’t accept this either, and who individually as well as through partnerships such as ‘Churches for All’ and the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’ are changing the church, one church at a time. There is much to do, but it has a sense of God’s favour all over it. But then, that shouldn’t come as a surprise at all should it? Jesus was the most inclusive, accepting person who ever lived; he loved everyone, he reached out to everyone, and he is still loving and reaching out to everyone, absolutely everyone, today.
Acceptance, one word with many meanings, but the meaning that I love the most is the meaning that Jesus brings to it, the example he gives us about how we should accept each other.
It seems, after all, that acceptance is a choice…
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.