Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities. By Brett Webb-Mitchell. Church Publishing (2010).
Book review by Christine Guth
Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, by Brett Webb-Mitchell, challenges churches to become communities of full inclusion for people who live with disabilities. Providing physical access for people with disabilities to enter a church building, argues Webb-Mitchell, is only a starting place when Christians take seriously the call to be the body of Christ. Drawing on biblical and theological interpretation and illustrative stories from his pastoral experience, he convincingly argues that churches must move to welcome people with disabilities as collaborators and “co-creators” in the community of faith. Benefiting from their full and equal participation is integral to the health of the body of Christ.
Webb-Mitchell envisions a “post-disability ministry church,” where special attention to disabilities is no longer needed because accommodation of differences and full inclusion have become deeply incorporated into the everyday thought and practices of faith communities. The distinction between disabled and non-disabled has no place in the Body of Christ, he contends, but the church frequently—even typically—fails in this aspect of its calling. Without the legislative impetus that has been prodding secular society toward greater justice for people with disabilities, the church is nevertheless impelled by God’s love and grace to embody inclusivity. Full inclusion is a matter of living out our high calling to be the Body of Christ.
Webb-Mitchell reflects extensively on the Pauline image of the Body of Christ in Part 1 of the book to spell out a persuasive rationale for including people with disabilities in the church and validating their gifts.
Part 2 outlines strategies to move churches toward full inclusion. Although he describes this section as “actionable steps,” I found it more theoretical and less concrete than I was expecting. I suspect most readers will need more in the way of practical strategies to achieve inclusion. (Our Auditing Accessibility page can point readers to many sources of such practical strategies.) Nevertheless, his reflections prod our thinking in new directions that are necessary, given the church’s history of clinging to the segregation and exclusion of wider society.
Webb-Mitchell describes four practices that churches may engage in that can move them toward full inclusion. These include (1) hospitality and welcome of the stranger; (2) accessibility and acceptance; (3) inclusion as co-creation, in which the gifts of all are nurtured, enhanced and realized to create community together; and (4) love—i.e., genuine friendships marked by justice and respect.
The book could have benefited from stronger editorial assistance in places. Occasionally I found myself struggling to deduce a key point in his argument that I sensed could have been made with more clarity. Occasional editorial errors may annoy careful readers, but on the whole these are not intrusive. His description of transforming faith formation through practicing the gestures of Christ left me with unanswered questions and a desire for more concrete examples, which are apparently available in another of his books.
Webb-Mitchell’s periodic reference to his personal experience as a marginalized person will give him more credibility for some of our readers but for others this may be a source of repeated irritation, since his personal experience of marginalization arises from his sexual orientation. I offer the caution that this may not be the book for you if you will find it disturbing to hear from an openly gay man.
Webb-Mitchell argues more forcefully for inclusion, integration, and collaboration with people with disabilities than other books I have encountered in this genre. His is a message for all church congregations, whether or not they include people with disabilities, yet those who have done little thinking about the needs of people with disabilities may see little reason to read it. Readers engaged in disabilities ministry will be challenged by this book, yet may be uncomfortable when he argues for the end of segregated programs for people with disabilities, since such programs are a typical pattern for disability ministries.
The dilemma before this book is the challenge that faces us at ADNet every day: How do we get a hearing for our ideas among people who are not already thinking about inclusion of people with disabilities? The challenge for us as disability advocates is not to settle for tokenism and not to stop when congregations have taken the first step of physical accessibility. Rather, we need to keep the invitation always open to take a second step, and a third, and a fourth, toward embracing the participation of people with disabilities.
Disability advocates in the public sphere proclaim, “Nothing about us without us.” The motto stands as a challenge to faith communities to draw on the rich wealth of experience that people with disabilities can bring to the Body of Christ. Brett Webb-Mitchell’s Beyond Accessibility will effectively stimulate thought and conversation in faith communities intent on accepting this challenge.
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