At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches is a seminal and vital read for all, including clergy, lay workers, congregations and those who work with disabled and neurodivergent people in any manner. Written by Dr Naomi Jacobs and Emily Richardson, this book provides an insight to the voices of disabled and neurodivergent people’s stories within the church, through their battles for justice, challenging the church’s ableism and creating communities of edge walkers. The book is based on Naomi’s PhD research with disabled Christians, rewritten with Emily for a wider audience and bringing the voices of disabled and neurodivergent Christians to the fore. A timely publication, this book should be compulsory reading for theology and sociology of religion students, and part of CPD (contuing professional development) packages for clergy and other church employees.
The book is divided into two halves; the first being about how we as disabled and neurodivergent people have been ‘shut out’, and the latter half exploring how disabled and neurodivergent people are beautifully and wonderfully made. Deep and challenging questions are asked of the church, including its silence in the face of injustices in wider society. A common thread throughout the stories of the disabled and neurodivergent Christians is how the structures (both social and physical) of the church push us out, echoing wider social prejudice and discrimination.
The high number of disabled and/or neurodivergent people from a variety of intersections are cited and their knowledge drawn on throughout the book. Citational justice (see notes below) is aimed for, which we know to be a vital part of getting the voices of marginalised voices heard. Historically, and even today, disabled and neurodivergent Christians tend to be spoken about and over rather than listened to. Close attention to disabled and neurodivergent voices cited throughout the book supports steps towards testimonial justice (Fricker, 2007), as well as challenging the ‘objective’, peer-reviewed, able-bodied and neurotypical interlocutor as the most reliable contributor to the dialogue. Naomi and Emily also argue that true allyship should be reflexive, including reflecting on how much power individuals hold in conversations on disability in churches. Radical perhaps, but this is impossible to ignore, especially against the growing evidence base of the double empathy problem (see below).
A clear and straightforward call for justice to the church, the stories are told with nuance and sensitivity to the variety of experiences that disabled and neurodivergent people have within churches, whilst not softening the demand for change. As Naomi and Emily assert, ‘access is about power, privilege and (in)justice’ (p.44). We are flourishing in our disabled and neurodivergent led spaces; however it is time for the church to understand what we as disabled and neurodivergent people experience and navigate on a day to day basis, and how the insidious nature of power structures, barriers and the image of the ‘non-disabled God’ continue to harm us.
Krysia Waldock is an autistic PhD candidate at the University of Kent researching autistic people in religious groups. They are also a neurodivergent Christian who has a keen interest in meaningful and non-tokenistic inclusion, in both church and academic contexts. They are a member of the planning group for the annual Conference on Disability and Church run by IC in partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Neurodivergent people have ‘a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”’ (e.g. autism, dyslexia, ADHD) according to Nick Walker (2014).
Edge walkers is a term coined by Dr Judi Neal (2006).
Citational justice is a term inspired by the notion that who we reference is political (Ahmed, 2013), and whose voices we chose to include and value within our work. Intersections such as gender, race and class, as well as disability and queerness.
Double empathy describes the need for both autistic and non-autistic people to understand and adapt to one another’s experience of life.
Ahmed, S. (2013). Making Feminist Points. Accessed 11th July 2022, retrieved from: https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford Scholarship. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198237907.001.0001
Jacobs, N. L. C. (2018). The Upside-down Kingdom of God: A Disability Studies Perspective on Disabled People’s Experiences in Churches and Theologies of Disability. Unpublished PhD Thesis. SOAS, University of London.
Jacobs, N., & Richardson, E. (2022). At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches. London, England : Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.
Neal, J. (2006). Edgewalkers: People and organizations that take risks, build bridges, and break new ground. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Milton, D. E. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887.
Waldock, K. E., & Forrester-Jones, R. (2020). An exploratory study of attitudes toward autism amongst Church-Going Christians in the South East of England, United Kingdom. Journal of Disability & Religion, 24(4), 349-370.
Waldock, K.E., McCarthy, M., & Bradshaw, J. (2021). Conceptualising belonging: the views of Autistic people (poster 2021). Kent Graduate Researcher Showcase. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.10271.69280