#AccessIsLove: Changing Ableist Language in Churches

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[Image description: A graphic with a white background with a red border and black text with the words “It is all of our responsibility to think about and help create accessible spaces and community.” At the bottom, centered: #AccessIsLove]

As I shared yesterday, Disability Activists Mia Mingus, Sandy Ho, and Alice Wong have recently launched a campaign on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook called #AccessIsLove, framing accessibility as an act of love and a priority for moral inclusion — not an afterthought, not a burden, and not an inconvenience to be avoided. Throughout this week, I plan to write about issues of accessibility in churches, and as I do so, I want to spotlight the perspectives of disabled people. (I also recommend following them on social media.)

Casual Ableist Language

I want to begin this post with an excellent video from Annie Segarra who teaches about casual ableist language. She gives a lot of examples, naming ways that people use words associated with disability and illness to make insults, create jokes, or describe something as negative. It happens so casually. And these phrases are so common that people may not even consider the ways they reveal negative associations with disability.

Casual Ableist Language in Worship

How does casual ableist language show up in worship? In sermons? In liturgy? In directions?

Maybe we’ve spoken or encountered language like,

“We are blind to our sin.”

or

“No matter what Jesus said, it seemed to fall on deaf ears.”

“God promised to be with them, but they were paralyzed with fear and wouldn’t move forward.”

In all of these cases, the words ‘blind,’ ‘deaf,’ and ‘paralyzed’ are used to indicate some kind of moral shortcoming.

These days, I’m also pondering how we give directions, particularly issuing invitations to stand. A lot of times, a worship service will begin with a leader saying something like, “Will all who are able, please stand,” or “I invite all who are able to rise.” I think the intention here is to indicate it’s okay to stay seated. But… there’s a negative impact: This language immediately marks and separates the community into categories of who is abled and who is disabled, and of course, abled is upheld normative.

I stopped saying this a while back, and most of the time, I’ve replaced it with something like, “I invite us to rise in body or in spirit.” But… I’m realizing this is ableist too. It still separates, and it frames abled people as bodied and disabled people as disembodied.

I appreciate these words from the Rev. Jessica Harren, and I recommend reading her entire post, A Posture of Reverence: Words Around People’s Bodies Matter, Especially tho Those with Disabilities.

“Please stand as you are comfortable.”
“Please take your posture of reverence for prayer”
“Please take your personal prayer positions”
“Please take your personal reverence positions”
“Please take your person singing positions”
“Please take a posture to support your singing aloud and stand if comfortable.”

We could also say,

We are invited to … (mirroring this language)

Let us… (mirroring this language)

Mindful of Language

Concepts shape language, and language shapes community.

There is a great deal of negativity about disability baked into our common, everyday English. So we have to pay attention to that. And our language shapes how community is formed and who upheld as valuable.

This is something we need to be conscious about. We’re going to make mistakes sometimes, and we’ll have moments when we realize we’ve been framing something negatively for a long time. But if we want to have an accessible church where every body authentically belongs, we have to be intentionally mindful of our language.

Renee Roederer

This post is part of a series. Feel free to read the other pieces too:

#AccessIsLove: Inaccessible Church Buildings
#AccessIsLove: Invisible Disabilities in Church Communities
#AccessIsLove: Neuro and Sensory Diversity in Churches
#AccessIsLove: God Is Disabled

6 thoughts on “#AccessIsLove: Changing Ableist Language in Churches

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