I am grateful to Sarah Roberts Gardiner for this article on a subject very much under current discussion in the search for a more inclusive church. She says she offers this reflection
from a place of having my own disabilities: cerebral palsy, dyspraxia and hearing loss as well as sight issues, and being a family member and friend to those with additional needs.
Sarah Roberts Gardiner
Reflecting on the use of disability terms in wider society, scripture, and liturgy.
‘Deafness, blindness, dumb, mute, and crippled’ are some of the words used by society as a whole, amongst others, to describe disabilities. But they are used so frequently, and in a negative way, that people don’t even know they are doing so. Please don’t use these words unless it is to describe an actual condition.
Imagine if I used descriptions like ‘blue or brown eyed’, ‘creative’, or ‘reflective’, in a negative way. These are just characteristics, and any characteristic that makes you you is beautiful and to be respected, EVEN IF it also causes limitations or frustrations sometimes. It especially needs to be respected if society sees a characteristic like this as negative.
Yes, most things have their downside; for example, to be creative is sometimes to be anxious; but why not celebrate who people are, rather than using those terms in a derogatory way?
Of course, if there is a blind or deaf person in Scripture that’s different, because it is describing someone’s physical state; its the metaphorical use of the term which doesn’t help.
Sometimes disability terms are used to indicate a character flaw, an attitude that causes a problem. For example:
‘Deaf’ should refer to Deafness or hearing loss, rather than meaning someone is uncomprehending, unwilling to hear, or displaying wilful ignorance.
‘Blind’ means being blind or having sight loss, not that a seeing person is deliberately or accidentally not noticing something, or refusing to perceive a concept.
‘Dumb’ means literally being without speech, non-verbal. It’s not about being fearful or stupid.
Other words are simply quite difficult for some people.
‘Crippled’ – for some people this word has been adopted, others like me have their reasons for hating this word; try ‘unable to/finds it difficult to walk’.
Instead of using the disability term as a shorthand for something other than a medical condition, it would be kinder to those with actual disabilities to say what we actually mean.
For me, it’s not about being Politically Correct; it’s about honouring people and their experience of life.
The Bible is ancient, our liturgy is traditional, and sometimes wider society still uses these terms automatically, but let’s not use language that puts people down.
Sarah Roberts Gardiner
Sarah describes herself as:
DIstinctive Deacon Ordinand in Gloucester Diocese and clergy spouse, passionate about inclusion, loves spending time on the fringes of church, writing poetry, reflections (like these!) and working on the social side amongst those living with dementia and their carers. Christian togetherness runs through her veins as does chocolate. And the thing she gets up for in the morning is her dog Charlie 😄