Disability Theology:  An Empathetic Community

It’s not much good whacking the Church over the head with what’s wrong with it unless my criticisms are combined with some genuine attempts to offer creative thinking around how our shared experience might be transformed.

Inclusion is a useful exercise but it often stops at an understanding rooted in good works.  I love that quote from Oscar Wilde (‘An Ideal Husband’?) about people ‘making ugly things for the poor’.  However well meant, ‘doing’ oppresses rather than empowers if the powerful decision makers in the Church try to second guess what would be most helpful for people with disabilities.
You are not looking after us.  We need your empathy.
I run a course on disability awareness.  We start with empathy. I suspect a lot of us get confused between sympathy and empathy.  Sympathy is an emotion that urges us to help; to ask the question how can I make this better?  Hence that rather caustic quote of Wilde’s.
Historically the Church has done a lot of attempting to make things better.  Maybe the time is coming when we can move away from this to a less patronising  interventionism.  Move instead into a position of empathetic mutuality.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. We start with empathy when I facilitate disability awareness because once non-disabled people can get inside and metaphorically walk round the problems, the results are dramatic.
They’re are not engaged simply with access issues but with attitude and perception.
I can sympathise with you until the cows come home about how difficult it must be to do what you do in the way you do it.  The moment I allow myself to see things through your experience and consciously sublimate my own, I am opening myself up to being transformed.
Take the person who is non-disabled but is given the chance to spend a morning using public transport and negotiating town in a wheelchair.  It’s rarely the practical obstacles that dominate the de-briefing but the attitudes that have been encountered.  Above that are feelings the experience has evoked in the participant.  Everything from a sense of being on public display to humiliation and shame.  
These may or may not reflect disabled people’s experience some of the time.  The point is that they provide a building block; a way of bridging a gap.
So in churches can we start with empathy?  I think we can, as long as we recall that we are not all gifted at this.  Just as some would feel called to build the ramps or sit alongside a person who is depressed, others will have the gift of interpreting the insights their feelings bring them.  Those of us who are not good at this need to learn to listen.  The story of disabled people is intricate and difficult to tell.
Empathy begins not with how can I make this right or better but how am I changed as a result of my open-ended encounter with you.  I can’t minimalise the impact of your disability.  I can get where you’re coming from.
  

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