Why aren't disabled people of faith given the same platform—despite being experts, by virtue of lived experience, on disability?

The cover of the Spring 2019 issue of Mandate magazine shows to young girls joyfully hugging, one White, one biracial; one with Down Syndrome, one with no visible disability.
Credit: Mandate magazine
Published On: June 10, 2019

Like many people of faith, I’ve been profoundly moved by the writings and witness of Jean Vanier. His embodied expression of community and belonging through the work of L’Arche has taught me much about what it means to be radically inclusive—to live humbly with people who are otherwise pushed aside in a culture that devalues people with disabilities.

But I am also challenged by how Vanier’s voice has been revered and lionized, particularly in the aftermath of his death. Much as I hold his ideas close to my heart, I am finding the adulation of another non-disabled, White, male, middle-class person of faith troubling—especially in light of all that Vanier himself had to say about how we need to live as equals in Christ. We need to celebrate the gifts of all, he reminded us, and to listen to the wisdom of every person.

And yet Vanier’s voice, as that of a non-disabled person, rings out loudly while the voices of people with disabilities continue to be diminished. Why aren't disabled people of faith given the same platform—despite being experts, by virtue of lived experience, on disability? Why aren't their ideas lifted up and disseminated widely? These are the kinds of questions that inspired this year’s special issue of Mandate magazine (Spring 2019). Too often, the stories of people with disabilities are missing in the church. Too often, we miss the wisdom in the margins.

There’s a saying in the disability-justice movement: “Nothing about us without us.” It’s a provocative counter to a long, patronizing practice of providing solutions for people with disabilities without their perspective. In striving to avoid that perilous practice, Mandate consulted people with disabilities across the church during the editorial process and invited them to share their experiences in The United Church of Canada. Folks opened their hearts to that invitation. Many people risked vulnerability in revealing how the church, for all its talk of inclusion, continues to be a source of painful, if unwitting, exclusion.

But many were also hopeful that ableist privilege in the church will eventually be dismantled as we continue the arduous, ongoing work of radical welcome. As the Rev. Dr. Sharon Ballantyne says in the cover feature, the healing of the church “is in the village.” “No one can do this alone,” she insists. “You do it together…We need to learn to live into healthy relationships again and again.”

So yes, let’s celebrate Vanier’s voice, but let’s also celebrate the many voices of people with disabilities in our midst—people with the wisdom of lived experience in The United Church of Canada who can also teach us to live into life-giving relationships that affirm the presence and personhood of all. I invite you, then, to crack open this special issue of Mandate, to listen, and to learn.

— Julie McGonegal is the editor of Mandate. The spring issue of Mandate can be ordered online or call 1-800-288-7365.