Gospel Initiatives and Disability Culture – An Interview with Carole Lipari, Part 2

Carole Lipari is the founder and leader of AXIS, a Cru ministry on the campus of the University of Arizona. Part one of our interview can be found here.

So what opportunities or access does “disability culture” offer you in terms of sharing the gospel with those in it?

carol lipari

It’s not just that I can share the gospel out of my identity as person who has a disability. The average person seems to approach questions regarding disability as if this situation is outside of God’s control. The average person, even the average Christian has the mindset that God should fix disability, but cannot or will now. But that mindset does not help us to understand disability or God any better.

I think it’s really important to see what Revelation says about disability. We know that, in glory, we will be free from the things that now hold us back as barriers, from sin, from hatred… from disability. But we can use everything, and this even includes having a disability, to reach people with the Gospel. We can and should use even our disabilities to reach and share the good news. It’s just not good enough to say that disability is a “result of the fall.”

Well, hearing you describe it, your disability doesn’t sound like it’s entirely a negative. You actually make having a disability and being able to engage disability culture sound like a STRENGTH!

Absolutely. It’s important to emphasize that having a disability is, of course, a hard thing. There is a real painful reality to disability. There is the truest heartbreak that can be experienced as a result of disability. I cannot tell you how often I have been left out, forgotten, and neglected as a result of disability. Even now as I consider overseas ministries, certain doors are being closed as a result of disability. I have and will continue to be fighting against inaccessibility and the preconceived ideas that cause people to behave differently around me. And in the depths of my pain, it is hard not to blame it on the state of a world that is not intended for the “disabled” person; it is hard to fight the lie that says, “it is you that’s the problem.” There are days that I question why I even try to seek certain opportunities or try to be funny and optimistic. The reality of disability is heartbreak and disappointment. There is no escaping that.

But there is power in experiencing heartbreak. There is power in disappointment. There is power from the Spirit that pushes me to be optimistic. If I can turn to the cross and surrender my struggles with accessibility and all of the other baggage that comes with disability, then I can find freedom. The reality is that happy thoughts won’t make a flight of stair disappear. But truth is that with the power of the Spirit, I can speak about the ways that the Gospel has saved my life in light of disability. People can begin to understand why the gospel is important while simultaneously understand why accessibility is important.

After all, getting out there and interacting with people is what is the most important key to evangelism and change in accessibility. And that’s just what I love to do… get conversations going, engaging people, moving them toward talking about Jesus.

You’ve done a good job letting me see how engaging disability culture can be helpful in evangelism, and how it can be a blessing to those who are members of it… But are there any ways in which disability culture might be a blessing to those in the “mainstream” who are “fully abled”?

I think it’s important for people to connect. Sharing life with a person with a disability can teach important lessons about how people who are dealing with struggles, challenges, and situations that we couldn’t imagine ourselves to be in, can deal with them, and not only remain human but be victorious. You could never imagine what it would be like to live life like such-and-such a person… but seeing them persevere in ways you could never know yourself can show you a lot.

I had read recently that most able-bodied people don’t have any disabled friends or acquaintances. So we’re missing out!

We all have to find ways to appreciate how we are and where we are, whatever the case. I think the most important thing is creating ways to engage in actual dialogue with people. Words have to make an impact in the lives they live… they can’t just be “translated” to them, they have to be alive in their reality. So that’s why dialogue is so important.

Our deep need is to be recognized for who we are – not pigeon-holed by our disability, but not by trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Regardless of how I “self-identify,” at no point can I deny that I have a disability… well, I could, but I’d just end up in a heap on the floor, no matter how I “see myself.” But that doesn’t place that at the root of who I am. Please – we are so much more than just people who have disabilities. Understanding that would lead to different treatment.

You earlier mentioned the “oppression” that disabled people experience and here the reality of the need to “be treated differently” arises. Frankly, too many able-bodied people see things like “Handicapped Parking Spaces” as being “special perks” for which they actually get jealous (or worse). What can I do to talk some sense to such people?

Well, one thing people should think about is simply this: I would take all the so-called “perks” that come from being recognized as a person with disability and renounce them forever if I could walk. We live in a culture that thinks that everyone is “normal” (like everybody else)… when we most certainly are not. That goes back to the identity question again: I don’t know how often I’ve heard words or felt that what people are really saying to us is “Don’t they want to be like us… to be ‘normal’?” How can I even answer that sort of question? We are all experiencing different degrees of “normal.” In the United States, living without our parents as we age is “normal.” This is not the case for many other countries. For example, in China, it is the social norm for young married couples to welcome their families into their homes. In the same way, my disability is my normal. The world has yet to understand this and, as a result, have not accommodated to disability needs. Thus, my heartbreak and struggles are stemming from the world not embracing my normal instead of me being the abnormal factor.

What we really want is respect. To be acknowledged as being equal. If you look at things like “accessibility” we’re not asking for anything special. Accessibility is just applying the technology that’s already available to help EVERYONE be able to have the ability to do what EVERYONE ought to be able to do. Sometimes it feels as if I should be ashamed for asking. The problem is not that people are asking for things to be made accessible, but that things are not accessible. It’s just making the things that belong to the “public” (which includes those with disability) available to the public.

As one who’s worked in cross-cultural mission for a number of years, I’ve come to believe that every culture has some unique ability for insight into God and his Gospel… that’s one of the things I personally value most about being in cross-cultural mission. So how does ‘disability culture’ prepare those within it for the gospel? Are there any “redemptive analogies” within disability culture that can help in gospel work?

One thing that everyone with disability has struggled with is the issue of healing. People always seem to give them the sense that “if you were healed, you’d be better.” But I would be better if the world changed its ways so that accessibility and acceptance was not an issue. I think God knows this, which is why I can turn to Psalm 139:14 and believe that I have been fearfully and wonderfully made.

There is something very deeply moving about seeing a person with disabilities accept Christ. They will still need to fight to be accepted in the world, and they will always have to fight for accessibility. But when they experience Jesus, they are overwhelmed because they don’t have to fight for their salvation and a relationship with God – to be loved – like they do with everything else.

That is both a powerful picture of the love of Jesus, as well as an strong indictment of us, whose neighbors feel they “need to fight to be loved.” Thanks, Carole, for spending the time today. May God bless you and your studies and service at UA.

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