Disability Theology: How Religious Beliefs Can Help or Hinder Accessibility
This story is part of a series on disability and faith.
(RNS) – The worship service begins with ‘Amazing Grace,’ an old favorite with the lyrics: ‘I was once blind, but now I see!’
Later, preaching on the gospel story of Jesus healing a blind man, the pastor preaches a sermon on Jesus bringing wholeness to the physically and spiritually broken, followed by a rendition of the Hillsong Worship Ballad Music “The Lost Are Found”. Members of the congregation raise their hands singing, “The lost are found, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the dead will live!”
Imagine being a disabled person at this hypothetical but mundane service. Even if a place of worship has ramps, accessible seating, large-print programs, and a separate room for those who feel overstimulated, the theology of many Christian services itself can only offer condemnation and exclusion. .
“When we limit our understanding of faithfulness or holiness to able-bodied people,” said Amy Kenny, Shakespeare scholar and author of “My Body Is Not a Request for Prayer,” “it limits our understanding of God and allows us to be fooled into thinking that independence is a virtue and that non-disability is somehow holy or good.This could be called “theological ableism”.
Kenny knows this first hand. For most of his teenage years and his teenage years, congregants would regularly attempt to “pray away” his disability on Sundays. Kenny acknowledges that the prayers were well-meaning, even though they called her flawed.
Kenny sees his disability differently: it can be a way to reveal God to others.
“These unsolicited prayers come from a place of wanting to completely erase disability. They fail to recognize that people with disabilities are at the forefront of the work God is doing in and with humanity through scripture,” a said Kenny.
She listed Moses, Elijah, Timothy, Zacchaeus, Paul and Jesus himself as some of the biblical characters with disabilities often overlooked. Their prominence in scripture shows us that all humans are of divine worth, Kenny said.
In his new book, Kenny also writes about his belief in a disabled God – one who came back from the dead with a scarred body and is described as sitting on a wheeled throne, much like his own wheelchair. She first encountered the idea in Nancy Eiesland’s book “The Disabled God”, published in 1994.
“It made such complete sense to me. It’s like when someone gives you the language to explain something that you’ve felt in your belly all along,” she said.
Although conceiving of God as disabled empowers some, non-theistic religions also have beliefs that enrich followers’ understanding of disability. When she suffered a spinal injury at the age of 17, Vidyamala Burch did not identify as spiritual. It wasn’t until a hospital chaplain took her to a brief meditation while she was hospitalized with complications from her injury that she discovered another side to her disability.
“This meditation experience and my subsequent exploration completely changed the direction of my life,” Burch, now in his 60s, wrote in an email. Today, she is a member of the Triratna Buddhist community and co-founder of Breathworks, an organization that offers mindfulness-based pain management. She pointed to a Buddhist teaching called the Sallatha Sutta, which imagines two arrows: one signifies physical pain and the other mental suffering.
“(I) if someone has freed their spirit, they will always be pierced by the first arrow because it is an inevitable part of life,” Burch explained. “But we can learn to let go of automatic resistance and resentment and then we won’t be pierced by the second arrow.” This teaching was invaluable to Burch as a disabled person living with chronic pain.
Noor Pervez, a disability activist and community organizer, said her religious beliefs shape her commitment to disability justice. A board member of Masjid al Rabia, an Islamic community center for marginalized Muslims, Pervez annually hosts #MyDisabledRamadan, a series of online events where Muslims with disabilities share their diverse experiences with Ramadan and discuss the accessibility in Muslim spaces. Pervez is also part of a team developing an easy-to-read Quran designed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I really think critically about the fact that Islam has built in accessibility changes by default, around things that they knew at the time the Quran was transcribed,” Pervez told RNS. “For example, modifications to allow people to pray while sitting or lying in bed are readily available.”
Rabia Khedr is CEO of DEEN Support Services, a Canadian disability support organization founded by Muslims with disabilities. In her approach to disability theology, she draws on a story of the Prophet Muhammad. Abdullah Ibn Umm-Maktum, who was blind, approached the Prophet as he was speaking to the nobility in the mosque in Makkah. Muhammad turned away and frowned, Khedr said, but was quickly reprimanded by Allah.
“After that, the Prophet always referred to Ibn Umm-Maktum as ‘the man for whom I was rebuked.’ And, in fact, gave him great respect and honor and at one time made him responsible for the city of Medina in his absence,” said Khedr, who noted that if the Prophet can change his view members of the community with disabilities, so do Muslims today.
Rabbi Michael Levy, who heads a disability empowerment organization called Yad HaChazakah, and who, like Khedr, is blind, noted that God chose Moses to lead the Israelites from Egypt, even after Moses protested that ‘he was too “heavy of tongue and heavy of speech.”
“God said, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t choose you because you have a disability,'” Levy said, paraphrasing Moses came to rely on his brother, Aaron, the same way the people with disabilities often rely on speech-enhancing devices and other aids.
Once you start looking for them, stories about people with disabilities are woven across countless religious traditions. However, the lessons on disability to which they lead are often overlooked or oversimplified.
Bethany McKinney Fox is the founding leader of Beloved Everybody, a Los Angeles community for people with and without developmental disabilities. She said many Christians reduce stories of healing, like the story of blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark, to miraculous healing. The reality is more complicated, she insisted, pointing to the change in Bartimaeus’ community and Jesus’ decision to ask Bartimaeus if he wanted his sight restored.
“His eyes are healed at the end of the story. But he also becomes a follower of Jesus and the crowd is transformed,” McKinney Fox observed. wasn’t, “you miss a whole lot of other stuff going on here.”
Ultimately, the stories that faith traditions tell about disability matter because they translate into action. Stories that dehumanize people with disabilities cast people with disabilities as the problem, rather than the barriers to accessibility themselves.
Lamar Hardwick, author of “Disability and the Church” and pastor of Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, said faith communities should put people with disabilities at the center of their ministry.
“Jesus emphasizes starting with the disabled community, making them the priority of this banquet, which can be an allegory for the church,” Hardwick said, referring to Luke 14. “The challenge we have in the western church is that we have built the church upside down. We think of people with disabilities last, when Jesus tells them to focus on them first.