In recent years, there has been a greater understanding of disability as a common reality linked to the human condition. It is necessary to continue moving toward full inclusion, transforming very subtle forms of social exclusion and paradigms that emphasize the rehabilitation or normalization of people with disabilities. We also must question criteria of productivity, normality and efficiency, which have advanced the idea of unnecessary and useless people because they do not contribute to a consumerist and materialistic system.
Currently, we are trying to implement a significant conceptual shift and a structural change regarding the understanding we have of people with disabilities. We must consider the crucial impact of the environment, family, church and community when building concepts of disability and exclusion/inclusion, as societies are formed to meet all human needs, promoting the equality of opportunity, participation and rights, taking on diversity through respect for every human being and the infinite ways in which life can manifest itself. We can use this to guide our actions, policies and commitments to promote the dignity of all people as a central focus. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that there is no other way by which people can become human except through esteeming their own human dignity and exercising their human rights.
The church has sometimes promoted theological interpretations that have not helped the understanding of disability, as it has often been interpreted as a punishment for sins, a sign of a lack of faith, and even as a demonic sign. Nevertheless, attitudes have slowly started to change in faith communities as they are taking steps to find a more liberating vision and spaces to receive and hear the clamor and demands of people with disabilities. Every material or spiritual marginalization has to be overcome; Jesus has already set an example by meeting the oppressed and excluded people – to free them – and at the same time denouncing injustice and calling for a social transformation, proclaiming a kingdom that welcomes, that forgives, that is accessible, that overcomes the barriers of the impure, of sin, of the different.
All life is a gift from God. But the image that we have been taught of a perfect and beautiful God does not fit with a body that has obvious physical and mental "defects." The presence of disability confronts the fundamental stereotypes of society and also confronts our image of the God of Jesus, our theology, and our Christian practice. The way we respond in the presence of people with disabilities is essential in the message of the cross.
Alexandra Meneses Andrade, is on the pastoral team of the Mennonite Church of Quito, Ecuador, and is one of the coordinators of the church’s refugee project. She is a person with physical disabilities and has worked for many years as a volunteer with themes of disability and gender with the Ecumenical Disability Advocate Network (EDAN). Alexandra was recently interviewed for Merienda Menonita on “People with Disabilities in the Church.” Spanish-speakers can listen to the podcast at https://themennonite.org/the-latest/merienda-menonita-podcast/
Thanks to Linda Shelly, Director for Latin America, Mennonite Mission Network/Red Menonita de Misión, for help with translation.