UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities – Dec 3

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This celebration, created by the United Nations, seeks to celebrate the over one billion people worldwide living with some kind of disability. Disability is so natural, that this number equals 15% or more of the total population of the world. We don’t celebrate disability, but the ability that is hidden within, and makes uniquely able all of those who live with a disability. Pause to remember those who are as whole in their human identity as everyone else, but can find themselves treated as lesser beings.

2019 theme: “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda”
The estimated one billion people living with disabilities worldwide face many barriers to inclusion in many key aspects of society. As a result, people with disabilities do not enjoy access to society on an equal basis with others, which includes areas of transportation, employment, and education as well as social and political participation. The right to participate in public life is essential to create stable democracies, active citizenship and reduce inequalities in society.

“Disability is a theological issue because all people are created in the divine image, and people with disabilities indicate something unique about the content of that image. Disability is a political issue, too, because the distribution of social power should create the conditions for equality and justice; people with disabilities reveal how the restriction of access, the constraint of movement, and the discrimination against people with diverse abilities represents a failure of that orientation. These political aspects of disability lead to my thesis: caring for human beings made in God’s image is essential to our communal efforts to create just and compassionate political systems”. (introduction to article)
(Source: Mike Walker, Embodying Compassion: the Theological and Political Content of Disability, Political Theology)

I’ve been sorting through papers and re-reading a TEAR magazine (2011) focussed on disability. Great articles. A handful of memorable quotes…..

Of the 650 million people with disabilities in the world, a staggering 80% live in developing nations.

‘It always comes back to belonging. We have to discover more fully that the church is a place of compassion and fecundity*, a place of welcome and friendship. We need time to listen to and understand people with communication problems. It takes time to become a friend of people with disabilities. (Living Gently in a Violent World, by Jean Varnier with Stanley Hauerwas). (* fecundity – fruitfulness and the capacity to give life)

‘Those we lock away and think worthless have the power to teach and even to heal us” (Varnier). We are all ‘broken’ in some way. When you start living with people with disabilities, you begin to discover a whole lot of things about yourself’. Varnier learned that to ‘be human is to be bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other’.

‘The more we can identify what is particularly true for us individually, the more we may discover that others are making similar journeys’. (Henri Nouwen)

Matt Anslow writes: ‘In his book Suffering Presence, Stanley Hauerwas insists upon the ‘tyranny of normality’, the idea that normality is dangerous for people with disabilities. Hauerwas writes, ‘The most stringent power we have over another is not physical coercion but the ability to have another accept our definition of them’. Indeed, this kind of ‘defining’ people is a hallmark of human society, which inevitably leads to those with social power being able to delegate the label of ‘the other’. What is the impact on people who are labelled in this way? What is the effect on those who are ‘normal’?

A prayer for all God’s people

Let us pray for all God’s people. For people who are blind and cannot see, and for those who can see but are blind to people around them.
Lord, in your mercy help us touch each other.
For people who move slowly because of accident, illness, or disability, and for those who move too fast to be aware of the world in which they live.
Lord, in your mercy help us work together.
For people who are deaf and cannot hear, and for those who can hear but who ignore the cries of others
Lord, in your mercy help us respond to each other.
For people who learn slowly, for people who learn in different ways, and for people who learn quickly and easily but often choose ignorance
Lord, in your mercy help us grow in your wisdom.
For people who have chronic illness for which there is no known cure or relief, and for people who live in unholy fear of developing a chronic illness.
Lord, in your mercy help us and heal us.
For families, friends, and caregivers who serve people with disabilities, and for those who feel awkward in their presence
Lord, in your mercy help us see each other with your eyes.
For people who think they are worthless and beyond your love, and for people who think they don’t need your love,
Lord, in your mercy help us accept your love.
For people who feel isolated by their disabilities, and for people who contribute to that sense of isolation
Lord, in your mercy change our lives.
For all the people in your creation, that we may learn to respect each other and learn how to live together in your peace.
Lord, in your mercy bind us together. Amen.
(Source: Kate Chipps, adapted by Ginny Thornburgh)

Celebrating God’s Image in All People
We praise you for creating humankind with a wonderful variety of bodies
that have a staggering array of abilities.
Forgive us for taking our own abilities for granted
abilities like climbing steps, seeing, hearing, singing,
speaking, lifting a child, and walking a dog.
Forgive us for failing to use well the abilities you give us.
We don’t listen to the young man with autism who has something to say.
We tell the young woman with cerebral palsy that she is not welcome to join the choir.
We choose not to visit the old woman with dementia because we assume she won’t remember.
We think the man with Down syndrome is disrupting the worship service
when all you hear from him is praise.
Forgive us.
God, you keep giving us second chances through your Son, our Savior.
Likewise, teach us to be gracious people who see your image in each person.
Teach us to celebrate and encourage the gifts you have given to each of us.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
(Source: Mark Stephenson, Disability Concerns, Christian Reformed Church)

Litany for Disability Awareness
Jesus Christ, friend to all:
Give us the grace and the love to stretch out our arms wide and embrace, in your name, all those whom you love, especially those persons with disabilities.
Jesus Christ, hope of all the nations:
Help us to be a church that is welcoming and accepting, and which sees in everyone an expression of you.
Pour out your Spirit upon us, we pray:
That we may recognize and promote the gifts of all people, so that each of us may, in our own ways and with our own abilities, participate in the mission of Jesus Christ.
Give us the courage to be lights of welcome in the darkness of exclusion, a voice of gentleness in the wilderness of the unheard, and an outstretched hand of love to those longing for community, that we may welcome in Christ’s name all who are sent our way. Amen.
(Source: Reformed Church in America)

Preparation for Communion
Christ, be present among your people now, you who knew suffering, who showed compassion to all you met, who ate with sinners and tax collectors, the blind, the rich and the poor. Drive out from us all indifference to the needs of others. Drive out our fear of bodies that are weak, that look different, that do not function as they might. Drive out from us all thoughts and feelings that we might be superior, or that we might be less than others, or that we might be foolish, insignificant, repulsive, or sinful because of our disabilities. Fill us all with a sense of our own vulnerability, with kindness, and with the spirit of your unbounded hospitality as you invite all to the Feast. Move us to share that Feast as true sisters and brothers in faith, and may the God of love visit you in your times of trial and weakness, and raise you to newness of life, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
(Pathways resource, Episcopal Church)

Lord, God of our mothers and fathers, open our minds and our hearts to see your hand at work in the world around us, especially in each other. Let us approach each person as your own child, loved not because we are capable, but because we are completely dependent upon you. God of possibilities, help us to break away from the world’s definitions of wholeness and illness, for we are all born needy and we will all die. You gave us life everlasting and you restore us to your self. Make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in service to the world.
(Pathways resource, Episcopal Church)

Liturgy for Disability Sunday
Call to worship
To the God who walks on wounded feet and heals with wounded hands,
To the God who stands beside us wounded, all knowing and all loving,
To the God of imperfections, we offer our imperfect praise,
Trusting in the perfect love of the God
who knows what it is to be truly human

Song: All people that on earth do dwell…

Prayer of approach
God of pain and God of peace, Mother and Father of us all,
Created in your image we inherited what makes us human,
The ability to think, communicate, reflect, record and create.
These gifts are precious and we give you thanks.
Though we have gifts in common, we are not all alike,
Each of us is a different individual, unique and special,
We come before you rejoicing in difference.
We come before you knowing each child is given a different blend
of gifts and experiences, that shape, and keep shaping the adult.
Every person in your world is differently abled,
Every person in your world is differently disabled
Help each of use what we can to enhance our lives and your world. Amen

Song: When I needed a neighbour, were you there…

Bible Reading:


God, help us to know the truth of your love in our lives;
Enable us to grow in the grace we need
to be agents of change for a better world.
We dedicate ourselves and our gifts to your service. Amen.

God of our yesterdays
and God of our tomorrows
We ask that you be with us now,
God of our today.
God of Vision and New Possibilities
open our hearts and minds to the reality of your presence.
God of Light illuminate the dark places of our lives.
We are not perfect people.
Come through the cracks of our imperfections and fill us with your light.
We pray for all marginalised people.
Those who suffer discrimination because of: gender, race, sexual orientation, physical or mental impairment.
Give them strength and belief in their worth.
We pray for those active in discrimination,
and those who allow it to happen.
May they know what they do.
May they understand the hurts they cause.
We gather our thoughts in this sacred place knowing that you have heard each sincere desire.
We long for a time when all people are valued.
May our unconditional love flow from us to others
May it swirl and curl through this year embracing all who seek a better life. Amen

Song: Hope is Our Song

With your help O God:
We reject victim mentality – we will live as survivors
We will do the best we can – we will be people of faith.

For the God who walks on wounded feet
and heals with wounded hands,
For the God who stands beside us wounded,
all knowing and all loving,
For the God of imperfections,
We go into our wonderful and imperfect world
to reflect God’s perfect love,
and in so doing, claim what it is to be truly human.
(Source: Rosalie Sugrue)

Including All People in Worship
“The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [CSL], 14)
The Church is both sign and sacrament – the People of God and the Mystical Body of Christ. When St. Paul addressed the Church he said that there is neither slave nor free, Gentile or Jew, woman or man. There is one body and all are one in the Lord.
Yet for people with disabilities, participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church – a right and duty by reason of their baptism – is often made more difficult not by overt discrimination but by lack of understanding and empathy. The community often denies itself the God-given gifts and desires of those with disabilities simply because they have never thought to work with people with disabilities to review what barriers are present to keep all from participating fully, consciously and actively in the Church’s prayer and ministry.
Just as the Church must do all in its power to help ensure people with disabilities a secure place in the human community, so it must reach out to welcome gratefully those who seek to participate in the ecclesial community. . .The Church finds its true identity when it fully integrates itself with these marginal people, including those who suffer from physical and psychological disabilities. (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons With Disabilities, 12 )
This attitude of welcome and inclusiveness permeates authentic liturgical celebrations. All should feel welcome at the Lord’s table and be permitted to fulfill the ministerial roles to which he or she is called, competent and capable.
All qualified people should feel welcome to serve in the ministry to which they are called if they possess the gifts and are able to fulfill the requirements of that ministry. Any discussion of inclusion of people with disabilities must begin with the understanding that people with disabilities know best what is needed and should be included in all consultations. They often can come up with creative and cost-effective solutions which are borne from their own experiences.
(Source: Disabilities and Faith document, Catholic Church)

Father Henri Nouwen laid the spiritual foundation for the Pathways.org Inclusion in Worship ministry with his keynote address The Vulnerable Journey at the 1996 conference on inclusion.
“The great mystery of our faith is that we get closest to God when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we are willing to say, ‘I need somebody else’.”

“I suddenly realized that it was not in strength and power that God was coming to me, but in weakness.”

“One of the great gifts of people with visible disabilities is that they help those of us with invisible disabilities to get in touch with them.”

“You have to rediscover that the church is a fellowship of the weak, that the church is a place where God shows his unconditional love through poverty, the poverty of Jesus and the poverty of the followers of Jesus, and that the most poor and the most weak belong right in the center, right in the heart.”

Reflections from the L’Arche community
L’Arche is an international organization founded by Jean Vanier through which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, build mutually transforming relationships, celebrate the dignity of each human person, and make known each other’s gifts by working together to build a better world.

Guidelines for including Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in Worship by the National Working Group on Worship – Theology & Discipleship – The Uniting Church in Australia

We worship a ‘disabled God.’ The twisted, distorted, disfigured image of Jesus on the cross shows how God allowed himself to become disabled and at the same time completely accessible to human beings in need of healing. We can see the disabled child or adult in God’s likeness. “All persons with disabilities have the capacity to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts. Their participation enriches every aspect of Church life.
(Source: Bridging the Gap: Liturgical Catechesis for Special Needs)

As a person with a disability who is now an Anglican priest, on Disability Awareness Sunday my preference is to preach from the readings of the day rather than have specific readings.  Questions I ask to start with: What are these readings saying about disability and our common humanity?  This approach requires a certain knowledge and experience of disability as well knowing the congregation.   This approach is not always helpful for people wanting to celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday (3rd Sunday in June in NZ) but who have limited knowledge and experience of disability.
(Source: Anglican Church, New Zealand)

Introduction to Disability Awareness Sunday (NZ)
(Rev’d Vicki Terrell, Disability, Spirituality and Faith Network Aotearoa New Zealand)
Many people with disabilities have difficulty with the church because at times the initial response they receive is to pray for healing of disability. While acknowledging the importance of the healing ministry, it is not helpful to focus on it exclusively as a response to disability. It can lead to misunderstanding and be a barrier for people with disability who need to know that they are loved and accepted by God and the community of faith. People with disability are part of the body of Christ and are to be encouraged to be involved in ministry in whatever ways are possible.

There are some accounts of healing in these suggested readings and I would urge people preparing this material to see what the significance is of these events in terms of people being accepted and able to fully participate in the community again. Christ came to restore both the person and the community to wholeness.

The important messages on Disability Awareness Sunday are that people with disabilities are part of our faith communities and all of us together are called into the ministry of spreading the Good News of Christ, who does indeed break down the walls that divide. God can use us whoever we are if we are willing to answer the call of Christ.

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  2 Corinthians 4:6-7

But Christ said to me “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness” … so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

Loving God, Give us courage to embrace our humanity with its many gifts and struggles.
Show us how our weaknesses can become opportunities for Your power to shine through our lives. In the name of Jesus who broke through death and lives with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Theme: Being made in the image of God
Psalm 139, Genesis 1:26-27  We are made in the image of God
2 Samuel 9:1-13: Mephibosheth sits at the Kings table
2 Cor 4:5-12 Treasure in Earthen Vessels
John 9:1-4 Being blind not result of sin
Luke 22:14-20 Through brokenness there is redemption

Theme: We all have a part to play in Ministry
Psalm 103:1-13 The Lord knows our frame
Exodus 3:1-6; 9-12; 4:10-17
Romans 12:1-8(9-13) Different gifts
I Corinthians 12:12-26 The body of Christ
Mark 2:1-4 His friends lowered him down through the roof

Other Resources:
“Oh Light” An anthology of writings and reflections to enrich the spirit edited Anna Gilkison, Disability, Spirituality and Faith Network, 2008.
(Compiled in part to provide some resources for Disability Sunday)

Disability, Spirituality and Faith, Aotearoa New Zealand (background thinking and resources on Disability, Spirituality and Faith from various perspectives)

Christian Ministry with the Disabled (useful resources for including people in church-evangelical theology)

Statement on theology of Disability: A Church of All and for All – An interim statement, from Ecumenical Disability Advocate Network, World Council of Churches. This is a quite an extensive document focusing on some of theological issues regarding disability, There is some good thought provoking material in here, it was written by people inside the church with disabilities from a number of countries. It comes from a disability rights perspective.

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Rev Sandy Boyce is a Uniting Church in Australia Minister (Deacon). This blog may be a help to people planning worship services.
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