A successful Paralympic Games has just ended. Brenda Darke, who works with people with disabilities across Latin America, helps us to think through what we have seen:

What lessons can the church learn from the Paralympics about caring for people with disabilities?

Image of athlete lighting the flame at Paralympic GamesIf you’ve been watching the Paralympics as I have then you will have been thrilled, surprised, and humbled by what these athletes have achieved. Most of us are in awe; even with no disabilities we would never be able to run, cycle, swim or do any of the other sports to the heights that these people delight in attaining.

But is this a fair way of assessing how to welcome those with disabilities into our churches? Can we learn anything from the Paralympics to improve our pastoral care of people with disabilities? Is it legitimate to find new insights from the Paralympics?

I believe it is. I want to share a few of the lessons I learnt as I watched the Games in Rio and as I reflect on many years of working with children, young people and adults who have first-hand experience of disability.

So here are four areas I have noted.

People with disabilities are also people with abilities

This may seem obvious but for centuries we have treated people with disabilities as if their disability defines them, and thus we deny them the opportunity to shine in the areas in which they are gifted.

But as we watch the Paralympics, we are astounded by what these people CAN do and we hardly consider what they may not be able to do.

This should inform our attitude in church. If we see someone with a disability enter our church for a service or Bible study, do we take time to get to know them and find out about their lives? Do we ask them what they like to do or what skills and gifts they have? Normally as we get to know new members of a congregation we are keen to find out what part they can play in our local church body.

Image of wheelchair racingThis is sadly not how we usually approach those who have an obvious disability. We feel sympathy or concern and want to show our care so we are quick to offer help in a general way (and in fact we often patronise them). Rarely do we ask them how they would like to help us. It does not normally occur to us that they might have exactly what we need in our church.

The Paralympians show us how wrong we can be. I will never be capable of swimming, rowing or cycling as many of them can do. Clearly, in many situations I would be the one asking for their help!

This should cause us to think; how can I get close enough to someone with a disability in my congregation to find out how they could use their gifts and skills in our church?

People with disabilities are all very different

If, like me, you have been confused by the categories of the Paralympics then you may have tried to understand the complexities and diversity of disabilities that these athletes have.

We are all different. The Bible emphasises our uniqueness and individual worth. Psalm 139 speaks of our Creator who knows us intimately and how we are fearfully and wonderfully made. He loves us and made us as we are, each a reflection of the divine image. With this comes a huge and rich diversity. What we are witnessing in the Paralympics is the scale of this diversity.

As we are all made a little more aware of the challenges for disabled people during the Paralympics we may find we are more able to welcome them into our churches. As we see these sportsmen and women and listen to their stories we begin to realise they are just like us. They too have hopes and dreams; many are living their greatest dream of winning a gold medal.

As people of God, we have hopes and dreams for our lives here on earth. But our biggest hope is for the future. We know that God has sent a Saviour, Jesus Christ, and this same Jesus is offering hope and a future to all mankind, including those with a disability. How can we be more effective in share this hope with people with disabilities? We may need to make changes and step outside our own comfort zone to open up our churches for all to come in.

People with disabilities function well when they have the right adaptations and are treated with respect

We have seen the amazing range of mobility aids and other adaptations necessary for these athletes to perform or even get around the Paralympic village. There are many more adjustments we don’t see, in their bathrooms and living quarters. Without them they wouldn’t be able to compete.

Adaptations and aids are only the technological and logistical extension of what many of us use daily. We have cars or other forms of transport to get around, or glasses to aid our vision and hearing aids when we lose some of our hearing. We need to remind ourselves that these are in the same category as the Paralympic aids and adaptations.

Jesus reminded us of the need to be accepted and respected when he repeatedly engaged with a deaf, blind or paralysed person. He showed not only great love and care but also respect for them as people, like all of us, needing the touch of God in their lives, needing pardon and reconciliation with a loving God, needing inclusion in a redeemed community.

Part of showing care and respect is expressed in our willingness to use resources to make our church environments accessible in every way. This may be by ensuring that all public areas are easily accessed. It might entail thinking through how we communicate. Are all our written communications easily read by those with partial sight? Is there an alternative for blind people? How about those with hearing impairments? Then we should make sure we are welcoming all with cognitive disabilities. Do we have sufficient support for them to be included in Sunday school or Bible study groups?

It is a mistake to think that these people do not have a spiritual need or that they cannot respond to Christ in faith. They may be slow to speak or reason but their hearts are often open to God’s spirit and their faith can take us by surprise and be a real example to others.

People with disability often show a depth of character that we lack

Suffering produces perseverance and maturity which we all need to strive for (James 1:2–5). It is how we face trials and grow in our faith as a consequence that marks us out. People with disabilities have had to learn lessons from the difficulties they have encountered.

We all face difficulties at some point in our lives. Many of these difficulties are common to all of us – including those who live with disability. These sufferings result in building characters that are frequently seen to be resilient, persevering and positive. As we watch the Games, we can see these characteristics etched on the faces of the athletes.

As Christians we are called to stand fast, persevere, show dedication and be full of hope for the future. Like the sportsmen and women of the Games, the ‘heroes of the faith’ were prepared to throw everything else aside to win the prize, to reach the goal was their only aim. All else in life, while it might have been legitimate, was considered secondary. They sacrificed many of the comforts of life to win the race. Maybe we are not willing to sacrifice our lives for our Lord? His honour and glory should be our goal, but is it?


Lighting the flame: A.RICARDO/Shutterstock.com

Wheelchair racing: Alexandr Zadiraka/Shutterstock.com