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Sunday, 18 October 2015

Removing barriers to inclusion

Here is my sermon from last Thursday's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook (as usual, this sermon can also be heard on the London Internet Church website):

‘Attitudes towards disability affect the way people think and behave towards disabled people and impact on outcomes for disabled people in the way they are treated and able to participate in society. There are two distinct models of disability: (i) the medical model; and (ii) the social model.

The medical model looks at a person’s impairment and focuses on the impairment as the cause of disabled people being unable to access goods and services or being able to participate fully in society. Statements such as ‘he can’t read that newspaper because he’s blind’ are an example of people being influenced by the medical model of disability.

The social model looks at the barriers erected by society in terms of disabled people being able to access goods and services. It seeks to remove unnecessary barriers which prevent disabled people participating in society, accessing work and living independently. The social model asks what can be done to remove barriers to inclusion. It also recognises that attitudes towards disabilities create unnecessary barriers to inclusion and requires people to take proactive action to remove these barriers.’ (

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 9. 1 - 8) is about barriers faced by a paralyzed man in getting to and receiving from Jesus and is a story which, although the term did not then exist, uses the social model of disability.

The medical model of disability would have us believe that the man’s paralysis was the main problem he faced in getting to Jesus. But, in the story, this isn’t his main issue. Although he is unable to move himself because of paralysis, he has friends who can carry him where he needs to get to. Personal assistants or supporters often enable those who have disabilities today to get around in ways which they may not have been able to manage otherwise.

The issue here is not the man’s paralysis. Instead it is people around Jesus – the size of the crowd was such that his friends couldn’t manoeuvre their way through and the crowd clearly had no intention of letting the man and his friends through. It is the crowd, and not the paralysis, which is the main barrier to the man reaching Jesus. As a result, we see the social model of disability in action here, rather than the medical. The man’s friends make a reasonable adjustment to ensure that the man can reach Jesus, by making a hole in the roof and lowering the man through.

Next, Jesus addresses attitudes which cause barriers towards those who have disabilities. As a result, he is again working with the social model of disability rather than the medical model. The attitude he addresses is the one which says that experience of disability is caused by sin. This is the attitude which says in order to suffer from his paralysis, this man must have sinned greatly because he is now being punished heavily by God.

In John 9 we see this stigmatising attitude being voiced by Jesus’ disciples when they ask Jesus whether a blind man is blind because of his own sins or those of his parents. Jesus says, ‘Neither’, because the onset of disability isn’t in any way to do with sin. If it were, why are we not all blind when the Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?

Here Jesus challenges or subverts this disabling attitude by stating that the man’s sins are forgiven. In saying this, he is simply and clearly stating that sin is not a factor in causing this man’s paralysis.

It is only once these physical and attitudinal social barriers have been addressed and removed that Jesus then addresses the medical issue by healing the man of his paralysis. As a result, this story gives us a model to follow; a model which says, like the social model, that we achieve inclusion for disabled people when physical and attitudinal social barriers are removed. Whether the medical condition changes or alters is not the main issue because it is not the primary reason for the sense of exclusion that disabled people often experience.

The physical and attitudinal barriers which need to be removed in our day may well be different from those in Jesus’ day but they are just as significant in genuinely addressing exclusion and achieving real inclusion today, as for the paralysed man in this story from Matthew’s Gospel. Just like Jesus we need to be concerned about equality and inclusion, especially when that means (as it did for Jesus) working to bring change to the culture of our day.


Norman Barratt - Now I Know.

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