We’ve been taking on a couple of prevalent ideas about disability: first, that it’s a problem that involves certain individuals’ brains and/or bodies and secondly, that “we’re all disabled” in one form or another.
Yes, everyone is different. And no one is able to be or do everything they might like to be or do. Those truths are always worth remembering. But there are certain types of difference that get “marked” in critical ways. There is a deep tendency to categorize the difference(s) that come with certain forms of impairment as “stigma” – a “branding” that marks off the “offender” or “deviant” from “the rest of us,” who are then normalized.
What is it that makes a wheelchair user or a kid with autism “disabled”? It’s not the “difference” itself, but what we – society at large – make of it. Katherine Quarmby writes, “Society’s attitudes towards people with impairments are disabling… as is the environment that denies them access to building and public space.”
Disability isn’t a function of “problematic bodies and brains” at all. It’s a result of the way society is organized. Disabilities do exist, and they are a cause of great suffering for many among us. But they arise from normal aspects of life. A disability is not a medical problem requiring “treatment.” The real problem comes from the barriers of inaccessibility and ignorance that are constructed by society around people who have certain forms of impairment – the “wrong” forms of difference.
These barriers can take the form of attitudes: We mark off certain forms of “difference” with fear or disgust, ignorance or stereotypes, and low expectations. As a person of faith, it is with profound sadness that I have to acknowledge that certain aspects of religion – even my own tradition of interpreting and enacting Scripture – have influenced this.
The barriers can be environmental in nature. There are things that are part of “normal” life – going to the store or market, accessing public space for work or leisure, attending worship or cultural events, using transport. The response of society to certain forms of difference is the physical inaccessibility in some or all of these areas.
The obstacles might be institutional – discrimination that becomes part of the legal fabric of society. Persons with disabilities are “legally” excluded from certain rights (self-determination, not being allowed to make housing, vocational or educational choices, perhaps even not being allowed to marry or to have children).
These barriers make it impossible for people with disabilities to take control of their own lives. It’s not the individual that gives rise to this, but the environment, which can be disabling or enabling in various ways. “Issues of disability are not just questions of impairment, functional limitations, or enfeeblement; they are issues of social values, institutional priorities, and political will. They are questions of power: of who and what gets valued, and who and what gets marginalized.”
If you’re having trouble grasping this, consider a town where every door or entrance was designed by bodybuilders and required you to exert 350 pounds of pressure to open it. For them, that’d be “normal” and non-problematic. But it would never fly, because it would keep too many people out. But in such a world everyone who couldn’t bench 350 pounds would be “disabled.” “Disability” arises when the lack of will or desire to accommodate access to all is overridden by an unwillingness to adapt to certain forms of “difference.”
It’s not a question of whether there are differences between people in terms of physical ability or social skill ability. It is a question of the relevance that we ascribe to those differences.
We are all “different” in our own ways. But we are not all disabled… and we are not – none of us – immune from needing to be part of community, to be connected, wanted, loved, affirmed. We all have these sorts of needs and we all strive to get them met. And, at our best, we give of ourselves to see those needs met for others.
Where does this lead? To true redemption. As Amos Yong points out, “people with disabilities find redemption from disability not when they are healed but with the removal of societal barriers – social, structural, economic, political, and religious – which hinder those with temporarily able bodies from welcoming and being hospitable to people with disabilities!”
There are millions of people who, through no fault of their own, have a “difference” which “the rest of us” label as “a disability.” But the barriers that exist between those with disabilities and their inclusion and participation in society are built by “us,” not them. It is up to us to begin to dismantle them. Not because we pity the poor unfortunate souls who “suffer” from being “victims of their handicap.” But because what we have been doing is wrong. And because we ourselves are lessened, weakened and impoverished by the lack of shalom –peace and wholeness – that is the result of our complicity in our society’s disabling of our brothers and sisters.