The bewildering and beautiful diversity of disability

Shane Clifton wants us to take another look at “normal”

Disability is not something we generally think about, but when we do, we imagine tragedy. We hear of a person rendered a quadriplegic, and we think to ourselves, “they’d be better off dead.” So we say to our loved ones, “If that ever happens to me, turn off the machine.”

Shane Clifton

We are also told by charismatic preachers and motivational speakers that to give in to disability is to fail in faith; to doubt rather than choose to be positive and overcome adversity by the power of self-belief. But the view that disability, happiness, and faith are self-contradictory occurs because our vision of each is too narrow.

If you are not disabled yet, be patient, because your turn is coming.

The danger of writing about disability is that it is set aside as specialty reading. Yet, disability should not be a fringe topic. On the contrary, to think about disability is to explore the fragility and potency, constraints and possibilities, and hardships and joys that are a part of every human life.

Every one of us is born utterly dependent upon our parents, who do their best to raise us up to become independent adults. But even when we seem to have made something of ourselves, we are always dependent on our families, friends, and the wider community. And even though we rarely admit it, our bodies are inherently fragile, always at risk of injury, illness, and permanent disability, and as we age, we inevitably deteriorate in body and mind.

If you are not disabled yet, be patient, because your turn is coming.

Disability is a fuzzy term. It covers a bewildering number of impairments, and infinite degrees of difference from the so-called “normal.” Disability is a bewilderingly but beautifully diverse label.

Because disability is about a person’s body (and the brain is part of the body), we tend to approach it as a medical problem to be fixed (or in Christian contexts, to be healed). During the latter half of the 20th Century, however, disability rights activists began to differentiate between the medical and social model of disability. While the former focuses on the impairment of the individual, the latter insists that disability is a social creation; that society disables people by isolating and excluding them. This exclusion results from the inaccessibility of the built environment, such as the lack of ramps and elevators into buildings, inaccessible bathrooms, narrow and obstructed doorways and aisles, as well as the failure to implement social and technological supports, such as the failure to provide sign language interpreters to people who are deaf, or education that meets individual learning needs.

The disability rights movement has the goal of giving every person the opportunity to flourish.

People with disabilities are not limited by their impairment as much as by a society that is poorly fitted to enable them to flourish. The great advantage of the social model of disability is that it shifts the focus away from a person’s deficits and on to the society that excludes them, from cure to social transformation. Rather than trying to normalise people with disabilities, it seeks to reshape the world in which we all live.

The disability rights movement has the goal of giving every person the opportunity to flourish. Christianity shares a similar agenda. The good news of the kingdom of God promises blessing to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-20). The gospel is not just the saving of souls, but justice and the transformation of the world that we live in; “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And, if the priorities of Jesus count for anything, then disability is at the centre of its message.

But what does it mean for a person to flourish? The Christian virtue ethics tradition asserts that the good life is not primarily about short-term pleasure — although happiness has its place — but about living for meaning and purpose in relationship with God and others. It goes on to say that the good life is achieved by exercising the virtues; described by St Paul as fruits of the Spirit; “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, against which there is no law” (Ephesians 5:22 – 23). Virtues are habits of character, facilitated by cooperative grace, that help us to persevere and succeed in the tasks to which we are called, while vice (living according to the flesh), leads ultimately to devastation.

People with disabilities are not any more or any less virtuous than anyone else.

The Christian church has long been at the forefront of ministering to people with disabilities, and has much to teach all people about the good life. But too often good intentions — the desire to minister to people — has unintended consequences. Paternalism, even more than outright discrimination, is the primary target of the social model of disability. Paternalism starts with the presumption of superiority, and humility is its antidote.

The church, as with the wider society, needs to make people with disabilities welcome, not because they deserve our charity and pity, because they can make an immeasurable contribution to the life of our communities. Not least can we learn together what it is to flourish in the context of the vulnerabilities of embodied life.

People with disabilities are not any more or any less virtuous than anyone else. But they do have unique insight into the virtues needed to find meaning in the ups and downs of life, and to persevere against physical and social difficulties.

Shane Clifton is Professor of Theology at Alphacrucis College. This article draws from his recently published book, Crippled Grace: Disability, Virtue Ethics, and the Good Life, which is available in hard copy from Alphacrucis College and Baylor University Press, or on e-book from Amazon.

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