It was a while ago now. I'd done a training day on working with children who have additional needs. I'd taken it on at the last minute as the original trainer was ill, and despite the short notice the day had gone well.
Then came a comment that was meant as a compliment: "You were actually quite good for a disabled person."
The person who said it meant well, and I accepted it as a compliment. It happened a long time ago, but it came to mind as I saw various adverts online using a negative phrase to promote services.
So, I decided to test this. I suggested to friends and colleagues that maybe I should use that compliment on my blog as advertising. One colleague suggested a different wording: "Disabled speaker actually turned out to be very good ... who knew?". That made me splutter my coffee as I read it!
Laughter aside, let's look at this a little more seriously.
This compliment shows an unintentional bias on who is considered able to be a volunteer, leader or speaker in our churches.
I still get the "not bad for a woman" comment when I speak, preach or train (sometimes tongue in cheek), but it's so old now it just washes over me. I see there is a theological debate that some are still struggling with and I can leave it there.
But there is no such theological debate behind being a person in ministry when you have a disability. So why the reaction?
It's partly the history of charity and pity in the church towards 'the deserving poor', which included people with disabilities.
Much of the charity and pity remain, not deliberately, but it's there.
Often, when I speak at conferences, the steward on the door won't let me in, saying "I can't let you in yet, the speaker isn't here". I'm quite naughty and sometimes string the steward along as they ask me if I'm looking forward to hearing the speaker. The need to set up then takes over and I have to admit it's me. We have a laugh, move on and they have learned a valuable lesson. I've even been turned away from a leader's prayer meeting by a guest refusing to open a door for me – because "disabled people can't be leaders." This is the more politically correct version of what the guest said.
I've been fortunate in having people who mentor me and believe in my gifting. This is something very few disabled people are afforded, but should be.
Here's a question for you: in your quest to find and mentor young leaders, would you consider a disabled young person?
Some autistic young people are often overlooked because of misinformation. For example; many believe they don't have empathy, but the truth is – they have so much it can physically hurt.
I recently heard of a visually impaired person being turned down for ministry because the person in leadership couldn't 'see' how it could work (the pun wasn't intended!).
Again, I am fortunate to be in a church where the leaders see my giftings above my physical limitations, but I know from stories I hear that my situation is unusual. All the difficulties I face with preconceived ideas happen in the itinerant world of ministry, not with my sending church. For many with disabilities they fall at the first hurdle of persuading their leadership they can serve and minister.
Regularly, when speaking at conferences I get a face shoved too close to mine with a shouted, over-articulated comment along the lines of "well done for coming, especially with, err your struggles. Why did you want to come?" Once this was followed by "Such a lovely outfit, did you choose it yourself?" When I reply with "oh, I have the privilege of speaking this afternoon," I get an awkward silence, followed by an incredulous "really? No, I mean.... that's great...."
What can we do about this unintentional bias about disabled people in ministry?
We need dialogue. Not in a patronising way, but in a way that the conversation is heard and understood in all levels of the church.
Our churches need to be challenged to look for gifting in all areas of the church and not be afraid to disciple and mentor those who may be different.
There is much to be given by those with an intellectual disability. You don't have to be able to see and hear to serve, lead or teach. And I prove on a daily basis that wheels are not an obstacle to mission – the structures involved might be, but not my inability to walk far.
People often quote Matthew 9:37: "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few." They are right. Maybe this is because we overlook the one in five people in our churches who are disabled, just because they are disabled. We need to remember that those with disabilities are often uniquely placed to minister where others are not.
Here's a challenge. Over the next year, actively look for people with disabilities in your churches and help them to either find or hone their giftings. Disciple and nurture them and release them into their ministry. Then tell the stories of blessings that have come from this, because you may encourage another church to do the same.
Then hit repeat.