What Disability Theology Can Teach Science and the Church Part I

Devan Stahl and Leonard Curry discuss the growing field of disability theology, consider how theology enriches the field of medicine and bioethics, and make the case that theology can help us learn what it means to live and flourish with disability.

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Thanks for sharing this article. For some reason, it is difficult for some of us to talk about this - especially perhaps those of us who don’t consider ourselves as having any disabilities. There may be spiritual pride involved. And if one is brought face-to-face with that, it feels like a minefield that it is just easier to stay clear of and not talk about (for a non-disabled person). Meanwhile, our faith makes it pretty clear that we have a job to attend to: listening and attending to the needs of those around us.

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Thank you for highlighting your article and for the work you put into the interview and writing. This is a topic that would be hard for Christians to work too much with, as there is so much learned baggage that we erroneously attach to “disibility.” And unfortunately, we all bring our cultural baggage in through the church doors every time we enter.

I want to comment on a few of the highlighted sections:

[W]e do believe that our architecture, attitudes, and customs disadvantage some bodily configurations.

Part of our error is to think in terms of “normal” and “abnormal”, where of course, nearly all of us do or want to see ourselves as the norm. I think more realistic is an understanding that variation and change are the norm. Although there is a great deal of overlap, or that is average, difference among us is actually the norm. It’s hard to recognize, though, because there is so much variation among differences.
Because it’s harder to see variation as the norm, it’s harder to recognize ways to treat people’s variations as normal. We are more inclined to believe that orienting our world to the average is equivalant to being oriented to “the normal” and meeting the needs of “the greater good.”
In maintaining these assumtions, however we exclude or hinder — for no good reason — participants in our societies, and particularly in our churches.

Listen to people with disabilities. Listen to what we say about ourselves, our experiences, our quality of life, and what we want. It’s amazing how many conversations about disability never include people with disabilities.

This is hard for at least two reasons:

  1. Our culturally ingrained assumptions tell us that people with noticable disabilities are abnormal and likely even subnormal, therefore we don’t feel like we know how to be or communicate with them.

  2. When we assume someone is ab- or subnormal, we assume they cannot speak or even think for themselves.

In the Body of Christ this normally translates into infantalization of capable grown adults who should be in all sorts of positions of leadership in the church. Unfortunately, within the Body of Christ this extends even further to women, single adults, and couples without children. In spite of the core of commonality among all the members of the church, it is all too common to disregard the leadership potential of anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the “average” category.

How many times do we talk past a disabled person, asking someone near them as if the person with the disability, perhaps blindness or paralysis, is unable to hear or speak for themselves? How often are people with disabilities “helped” in ways they don’t want or need, because nobody thinks to politely ask (and act on the answer) “Is there something I can do to help you?” And how often are people with less obvious diabilities not helped when they need it, because of a general lack of relationships between people within the church?

Moving beyond this article, some of the newer jargon used regarding people with disabilities is “differently-abled” and “specially-abled.” Although well-intended, this is demeaning and alienating. Hanging out with visually impaired and blind tweens and teens a bit, when we take one of our daughters to camp, one quickly hears just how reviled such terms are by kids who want to live a normal life, have real jobs and participate in society.

Thanks for this article. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, and contuing work at Biologos in this area.

“One size does not fit all.”

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These are all good points, Merv. As the Body of Christ we need to look for ways (with the guidance of people with disabilities of all kinds) to learn how to speak about disability as well as really share lives with people with disabilities.
Both of my daughters have disabilities. The youngest was born with hers; the oldest acquired hers at 10. I’ve spent time with disabled kids in hospitals, therapy gyms, camps and more. Actually, kids with disablities are often easier to relate to.
I also work in the same building as our state library for the blind and am acquainted with some of the blind librarians. It’s tricky; I don’t know blind culture. My friend Scott, who is blind, is really patient and helpful. I also have an acquaintance who is deaf. She’s a brilliant texter and has taught me by example, that that’s a great way to communicate with her. Every relationship is different, though.
Because difference is the highly varied norm though, we always have to keep trying, and the best work takes place within relationships.
I think it’s also important to just boldly address the elephant in the room, maybe in a way like this: “Um. I noticed that you [have a mobility cane; are in a wheelchair; are walking stiffly; text with other people; etc.]. Can you tell me about that? or What else would you want me to know about you?”

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Are you saying that the disabled might have spiritual pride?

No. I was saying that those who don’t identify that way may in some cases have pride in their relative ability.

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  • What a very, very interesting topic and veritable minefield, which I connect to on many levels.
    • Thanks to @CReyes-Ton or to whomever came up with the idea for the interview, and to Devan Stahl and Leonard Curry for their input.
    • By way of self-introduction:
      • I am the biological son of two Deaf; the stepson of two Deaf; and the adopted son of a deaf woman and her Hearing husband who served as a Lutheran-Missouri Synod “‘Missionary’ to the Deaf” In Jackson, Mississippi, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and in San Francisco, California, for 40+/- years.
    • I was an RIA-certified Interpreter for the Deaf for a few years in the 1970s.
    • My mother-by adoption had three blind brothers.
    • All of my parents’ and stepparents’ friends were Deaf and one of my stepmother’s closest friends was Deaf and blind.
  • The most fascinating thing in the interview, IMO, was discovering that “Disability Theology” is a thing worthy of academic attention and conversation. “Theology” has certainly traveled far since Abbe de L’Epee, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, and the wild boy of Aveyron.
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I’m so encouraged by the comments here and positive reception on this important topic for the church and science community at large; I have shared your words with our authors as well!

Leonard is a friend of mine, so I found out about this paper through him, and wanted to highlight it. Honored to work with Devan and Leonard on this interview and bring more attention to this important and much needed work, and the growing field of disability theology.

Thank you for sharing your own personal stories and experiences with disability in your own communities as well.

Part 2 just came out today - you can read here: What Disability Theology Can Teach Science and the Church Part 2 - Post - BioLogos

Blessings, Ciara

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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