I have been reading several books lately written by people with disabilities, beautifully expressing their own experience of Christian faith communities from perspectives that haven’t typically been elevated. These voices provide a perspective that all of us can learn from and can push us to imagine new ways of living as a faithful community.
In My Body is Not a Prayer Request, Dr. Amy Kenny asks us to approach people with disabilities as unique image-bearers of God, wondering if this marginalized group of people might have a unique experience of Christ from which others can learn. Rather than seeking healing on behalf of persons with disabilities, we all might find admiration of her experience of God as a person with a disability.
This perspective has lessons for all of us in leadership and those who aspire to leadership. By centering the perspective and experiences of those who have historically been most marginalized from Christian schools and Christian school leadership, could we possibly find ourselves innovating for this school year with renewed energy?
Dr. Kenny explains that when we center the needs of people with disabilities, we all benefit. She explains that the history of design thinking has benefitted society—providing text messaging and other tools that all of us cannot imagine life without. She pushes us to imagine what new innovations could be possible when we center the experience of people with disabilities. “When we are too focused on universal design for the mainstream, we are not as innovative. We don’t even realize that we are missing touch screens and texting because no nondisabled person has thought to need them before” (Kenny 142).
When we think of accommodations or diversity as ‘nice to haves’ instead of ‘need to haves,’ we actually miss the mark on our mission statements and what should be essential to our institutions. We know that when our schools serve the needs of students with varying needs, alumni are 1.5 times more likely to report they are currently walking with God (Swaner, Marshall, and Tesar 2019). Dr. Kenny connects this biblically by referencing Luke 14 and pointing out that, “At the great banquet, poor and disabled people are accommodated first, and still there is room enough for everyone to partake” (Kenny 177).
There is an urgency to this approach to inclusion, much as why we no longer use the term ‘special education.’ Special education is a historic term that connotes the ways we have taken ‘typical’ education and changed it for the small subset of students who might not learn ‘typically.’ Instead, we use the term inclusive education to challenge ourselves towards designing education that meets the needs of a wide range of students—because special education practices have so often resulted in benefits for all students. This work of centering marginalized voices is essential to our faith, our communities, and the building of our teams.
We have an opportunity in Christian schools to reimagine leadership and shape the expectations of leadership around the most marginalized groups. Rather than seeing the experiences of someone of color, or a woman in leadership, as a reason for suspicion of a particular agenda, centering historically marginalized experiences could benefit all students, just as inclusive education has done.
Perhaps our leadership teams and boards could do the same. We could see diversity of experience as a unique qualifier for leadership instead of an adjustment for which we need to make accommodations. What would our schools look like if we centered access for the most historically marginalized—to our admissions policies, our discipline policies, and our leadership recruitment?
Daniel Bowman Jr. writes in On the Spectrum that as Christians, “We feel free to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit. We know it’s not faith—it’s merely control, the fleeting and futile avoidance of suffering” (Bowman 133). It is the easier path to think that our schools have too limited of resources to respond to students with trauma histories, or to think that only one type of leader can fit the role. But the beautiful advantage of working in faithful communities is that we have lots of examples that honor individual needs, that push us to learn from others, and to reimagine what the role of leadership might look like.
This school year, what might you learn by centering the experience of people who have been marginalized in the past? I pray that you receive blessings in this work and insight that inspires your faith.
Kenny, Amy. (2022). My Body is Not a Prayer Request. Brazos Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Bowman Jr., Daniel. (2021). On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, & the Gifts of Neurodiversity. Brazos Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Swaner, Lynn E.; Marshall, Charlotte A., Tesar, Sheri A. (2019). Flourishing Schools Research on Christian School Culture and Community. Association of Christian Schools International; Colorado Springs, CO. Available at https://www.acsi.org/docs/default-source/website-publishing/research/fsci-research-report-2019.pdf