Disabled in Africa

We are surrounded by many groups of people in our society. Among these are those who are disabled. What do we, as Africans, generally think whenever we see a person who is disabled in our communities? Take Bahati, for example, who lives in a village on the outskirts of a major town. One morning, he heads to a local shop to buy some milk to make chai. Along the way, he sees a child who is disabled on the side of the road near their house, making grunting noises because they can’t talk or walk well. The child’s mother comes out of the house and seems surprised that this child is out of the house. What is Bahati thinking when he sees the disabled child and the mother? This blog intends to break down the general things that might have come into Bahati’s mind and bring them under a biblical lens. 

Are the Disabled Cursed? 

Many will feel compassion towards the disabled child, imagining how hard life must be for him and his mother. Others, however, will consider that this child is disabled because of some sin that his parents did. This thinking suggests that this child is cursed with a disability as a form of punishment because of what the parents or another family member did. Some might even go to the extent of trying to “help” the parents explore “solutions” to lift the “curse” that disability is to the child. The desperate parent might listen to these well-meaning individuals, travel long distances and even use lots of money to lift the “curse” of disability from their child. The parent may pay large sums of cash to questionable pastors, bishops, apostles, and prophets with the promise that they can perform a miracle on their child. In case nothing happens, the desperate parent and their disabled child will be blamed for lack of faith. Some parents, in desperation, may even be willing to pay large sums of money to witch doctors with the hope that juju will free their child. 

Another thing that sometimes happens in Africa is the family marrying off disabled young ladies quickly to relieve the family from the “burden” of their disability. In other cases, we find that non-disabled children are given priority to education in terms of school fee payment and quality of the school. Disabled children are also mostly hidden from the prying eyes of society. Some see them as a source of shame on their families’ reputations. This then leads to disabled children being isolated, vulnerable, and lonely. 

Should Christians follow the culture in this unworthy treatment of disabled people? Should we allow the shame of culture to drive our decisions concerning the disabled amongst us or the Word of God? Do we believe, as Scripture says, that all children, even children with disability, are a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5)? 

The Church and the Disabled 

What can we, as Christians and the African church, do differently? Do we treat the disabled and their parents as sinners who are cursed as a punishment for their sins? Or do we warmly welcome them into our congregations? Sadly, many of our churches are not friendly places for people with disability. Some pastors and church administrators will complain about how expensive it is to build ramps for wheelchairs and sensory rooms or construct a particular area for disabled children. Even so, creating structures to welcome the disabled to our churches is a wonderful gift to them. However, if we only focus on the finances of the building as opposed to the ministry, nothing meaningful will be fulfilled. As the African church, the best we can offer people with disability is the gospel, love, and a community. The most significant need of a family with a disability is not an expensive physical structure but selfless service (1 Peter 4:10, Matthew 25:35-40). 

Biblical Commands to Bless the Disabled 

According to the Bible, taking care of the most vulnerable in our society and blessing them is considered pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God (James 1:26-27). God himself loves and cares for the disabled (Isaiah 25:4, Psalm 68:5, Deuteronomy 24:17-22, Job 5:15-16). If our Holy God does this, then how about us, his Children, who are called to be holy like him (1 Peter 1:15, Isaiah 1:17)? Again, if God cares for and loves the disabled, then how can we say that the disabled child is cursed because of their parent’s sins?  

Consider what Jesus said about a man born blind in John 9:1-3; “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Considering these words, it is worth noting that the glory of God can be seen through disability (John 9:3). Also, we see that the Apostle Paul had an increase of the power of God’s grace in his life because he was weak in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). So, if a physical challenge or a disability can show forth God’s glory and increase the power of God’s grace in one’s life, how can we say that a disabled person is cursed? 

The Disabled are Blessed and Shine Forth God’s Glory

The scriptures affirm that all children, even disabled children, are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3-5). This means that God can use them to show forth his glory. When unbelievers see the glory of God, they are saved (2 Corinthians 4:3-4,6). There are many examples in Scripture of people with disabilities or physical challenges used to shine God’s glory. Consider that Isaac was blind (Genesis 27:1), Jacob limped (Genesis 32:31), Moses was “slow of speech” (Exodus 4:10) and Samson was blind (Judges 16:21). History records that Ehud had a shrivelled right hand (Judges 3:15, 21), Mephibosheth had crippled legs (2 Samuel 4:4), and yet God used these people to shine forth his glory. Imagine what would have happened if society had decided to hide these critical biblical characters because of their physical challenges or disabilities. 

As the African church, we must shun disability shame. Instead of hiding disabled friends or family members, may we embrace the disabled child or person in our midst. May we encourage them to step out in faith, knowing that God’s glory can shine through them as it was with the Bible examples above. The Church should welcome everyone without any partiality (James 2:1-13, Galatians 6:10). When we embrace the disabled, we show the world that God welcomes everyone into his family (Isaiah 25:4, Matthew 11:28-29, Romans 15:7) and that he can use all things, even a disability, for good (Romans 8:28). 

Despite society’s views about people with disability, may we, Christians, be encouraged unto compassion towards them. Let us trust that when the world continues watching our lives, they will have a chance to see God’s glory and good plan at work, for God uses the lowly things of this world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). We must never forget that God has a good plan for our lives (Jeremiah 29:11), including disability. Let us, therefore, love the disabled, not only in private but also publicly. Refuse to succumb to the pressures of society and follow Christ’s example while obeying his command to love your neighbour as you love yourself (Matthew 22:39).

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