I turned up early to speak at a conference. I like to do that so I can pray, get a feel of the venue and sort out any technical needs. But, as usual I ended up having a similar conversation to many I have in these situations, either from those looking after the venue or other conference goers.
The person greeting me in friendly fashion either starts with “You’re a little early I’m afraid - even the speaker isn't here.” or “Are you looking forward to hearing this session?” and sometimes “You’ll have to wait outside/other location until the speaker is ready”. Add any combinations of the above to the conversations I’ve had.
I’ve even been turned away from speaker’s prayer meetings because they’re “Only for speakers”. So why does this keep happening? Is it because I’m scruffy? Nope. Is it because I’m a woman? Well, sometimes - but not often. I don't tend to be invited to those conferences! The reason is because I turn up in a wheelchair.
So what does all the above have to do with being a disabled speaker? Well, if we have the ‘charity’ view of disability; we won't see the gifts of the person with that disability.
Even in seminars where I’m talking about inclusion, it is often assumed I’m there to hear the session. It is rarely assumed that I am the speaker, because obviously, people in a wheelchair are not able to speak, or serve, or do anything other than being ‘done to’.
Mine is only one type of disability. There are many others out there. The people who have those disabilities, like anyone else in the church, want to serve, to minister and to use their God given gifts.
Disability is associated with charity, not leadership
So why doesn't this happen as often as it should? There is much in the Christian press about gender balance in both conferences and churches. How many women are speaking and how does that balance with the number of male speakers. A campaign I have supported.
But as I often say - try being female AND disabled! For disability, I don't think the disparity is always deliberate. Some of its origins are set in our history - charity, the ‘deserving poor’; the desire to do our Christian duty. But with the herald of the welfare state, we didn't have to do that - so we swing between the charitable view of disability and the inability to see what disabled people need to access our church ‘space’.
I have been told that having a disability is against God’s will for my life, and therefore I should not be teaching those who are well [and therefore in God’s will]. But thankfully that is rare, and is very poor theology.
So what does all the above have to do with being a disabled speaker? Well, if we have the ‘charity’ view of disability; we won't see the gifts of the person with that disability. When disabled people cannot access our spaces and meetings, there will be fewer people with disabilities in those places. These two things add up to there being very few speakers with disabilities and therefore no role models for young people with disabilities.
Something needs to change
It is a constant cycle that needs to be broken. 20% of people in the UK have an experience of disability, and I’ve said for years that this is not represented in our congregations. But it’s not represented in those who speak, preach and teach either. So what can you do to put this right? I’m trying to change it, but I’m disabled….so I can’t speak….can I?
A great place to start is ‘churches for all’. They have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from all the major Christian Charities working with and for those who have additional needs and disabilities.
Meanwhile, I’m off to help lead on a children’s camp where I hope I can be a role model and show that disability does not mean ‘incapable of service’. A note on disability language: Some like to be known as a person with a disability, and others like to be known as a disabled person. I have deliberately used both. Personally, I just like to be called Kay.
Chair of Children Matter, Co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council.
Passionate about building lifelong resilient faith in children of all ages and abilities
Married to Steve. Coffee loving, knitting and Crocheting wheelie who loves technology.
Used to be a Children’s nurse specialising in additional needs.
Chair of the Children Matter Coalition.
Blog: “Pondering Platypus” kaymorgangurr.com