“Did Jesus heal people who didn’t want to be healed?” This is one of the questions I posed in my previous post, Theology of Disability. I want to reflect on this question, now, at the beginning of my journey into disability theology and then return to it down the road and see if/how my thoughts have changed, and I invite you to do the same.
Part 1 will be some general thoughts about disability in American society, because my thoughts about Jesus’s healings build off those. I’ll reflect more directly on my thoughts about Jesus in Part 2.
The Shame of Disability
Shame about disabilities is something that we nurture in much of our society. I also talked about this in Theology of Disability. Most of us don’t do it on purpose, but as I heard someone say recently: if we’re part of a system that oppresses people, we’re complicit in that system whether we realize it or not. We’re products of the systems that shape us, including our society, which implies, continually, that to have a disability is to be fundamentally broken as a human being.
This is why disability advocates are necessary; society is postured away from people with disabilities, both physical and mental, so society will pay virtually no attention to disabled persons if they and/or others aren’t advocating. And, it’s not merely an “out of sight, out of mind” situation. A community might be forgiven for not having wheelchair accessible buildings if they’d never seen a person who needed a wheelchair, but is there such a community in all the United States? It seems incredibly unlikely to me that lack of accessibility and inclusion is about lack of exposure. Rather, we’re trained to not see.
This posture promotes shame for disabled persons by teaching everyone that disabilities aren’t worth accommodating. For someone with a permanent disability, it implies that they aren’t worth accommodating. Some of you might be thinking, “Disability doesn’t equal identity. A person is more than their disability,” and I agree with you, but I’ll circle back to that in a minute. The important point, here, is that people do, functionally, recognize disabilities as part of people’s identities, and if disabilities are attached to shamefulness, that system will inherently teach disabled persons that they ought to feel shame (i.e. “you’re shameful, because disabilities are shameful”).
My observation is that the existence of such shame is often obscured by dissonance. We speak as though our ideal imaginations are the current reality, which allows us to continue in ignorance. That dissonance seems to be one reason why disability and identity are difficult to talk about.
Data About Shame and Disabilities
- Disability stigma (often accompanied by shame) is common in American society for both physical and mental disabilities. The University of Washington Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) lists several ways that disability stigma can play out, including social avoidance, discrimination, hate crimes, and internalization, where a person “adopt[s] negative beliefs about their disability and feel[s] ashamed or embarrassed about it.” (That last one is also sometimes called Internalized Ableism.)
- Did you know that, according to the CDC, around 26% of Americans have a disability? That’s around 1 in 4 people, yet disability accommodations and considerations are rarely a topic of discussion. Imagine regularly ignoring 26% of your community when making decisions; now stop imagining, because that’s the reality we live in. We essentially tell 26% of Americans that the realities of their lives aren’t worth talking about.
- According to Benita N. Chatmon, internalization of societal stigmas can cause “the person with the mental illness [to feel] shame about his or her symptoms.” Furthermore, expectations of toxic masculinity often teach male Americans to repress emotions, and straying from “these rigid masculine norms may lead to: worsening of depression and anxiety, abuse of substances, greater health risk (e.g., cardiovascular and metabolic disease), issues with dating and interpersonal intimacy,” and more.
- From EPIC: “In recent years, the disabled community has also been silenced by the popularized positivity movement that believes ‘the only disability is a bad attitude.’ Although on a surface level this statement sounds encouraging, both attitudes have the underlying message that it is up to the disabled community to change if they want to be part of society.” (Essentially: gaslighting.)
- Pre-pandemic, many folks with disabilities were told by organizations (e.g. universities, churches, workplaces, etc.) that accommodating special needs was too costly or unrealistic, yet when the lockdowns hit, many of those same organizations bent over backwards to change their policies and procedures within weeks. This sent a clear message to many disabled communities that it was only their needs that weren’t worth accommodating; once non-disabled populations were in need, things were suddenly possible.
These are only the tip of the iceberg of how society marginalizes disabled persons and communities, and remember: that’s the shaming and disenfranchising of about 26% of Americans. I suspect that many of us who are in the other 74% have trouble internalizing that number, because society does a good job of making us feel like disabilities are much rarer.
Disability and Identity
Disability doesn’t equal identity. A person is more than their disability.
The trouble with this statement is that it’s partially true. I think it’s generally well-intended, but it’s not wholly honest. No single characteristic about a person should equal their entire identity. To put it another way, no human being should be watered down to a single identifier. I talked about this a bit in Humans and Heroes; we’re complex, and our identities are continually being revealed in complex ways. One’s disabilities aren’t the sum of their identity.
However, when the statement is used as part of that obscuring dissonance, it loses its intention. Rather than rehumanizing someone who has been reduced to only their disabilities, it dehumanizes someone by diminishing the lived realities of their disabilities. It becomes the “all lives matter” of the disability conversation; it’s true, but it’s not wholly honest about the issues and realities at hand. To use another comparison, it can be used similarly to the statement quoted by EPIC: “The only disability is a bad attitude,” which is essentially gaslighting.
Let’s contrast some uses of this idea in different scenarios.
- A person is blind and regularly attends a get-together where no one else is blind. The non-blind attendees regularly play dominoes, but they won’t invite the blind person to play, even after that person has expressed interest. In all other ways, the blind person is treated as equal, but for the purposes of the game, that person is reduced to their blindness.
- A congregation has an auditorium with stationary pews. They have certain areas where some extra space has been left for persons with scooters or wheelchairs, but there’s no way to make room for such persons to sit anywhere else.
In the first scenario, a person with a disability is being dehumanized by being reduced to only their disability (or, at least, their disability is being elevated as the most substantial identifier). Arguing that a person’s identity is more than just their disability can be a way of rehumanizing that person. They’re more than just “a blind person,” and others shouldn’t get to decide what they can and can’t do or participate in simply because they’re blind. “Disability doesn’t equal identity. A person is more than their disability.”
By expanding this person’s identity to more than just their blindness, we can help people see them as a person who’s blind and a person who plays dominoes, etc.
In the second scenario, the layout of the pews determines where persons in wheel chairs are allowed to sit. Able-bodied persons are centered in the seating arrangements; they can sit pretty much wherever they want, but a person in a wheel chair can only sit in the pre-determined areas with extra space. If the congregation responds to that by saying, “A person is more than their disability,” it essentially says, “You (wheelchair-bound person) are focused on the wrong thing.” It deflects from the issue: that person is being controlled through their disability.
Keep in mind that the second scenario isn’t addressing the actual limitations of having a wheelchair. Rather, it’s using those physical limitations to control the areas to which a wheelchair has access. Obviously, if a wheelchair can’t get somewhere, neither can the person in the wheelchair. It’s an artificial limitation imposed on a person with a disability.
Telling a person in the second scenario that they should focus on the other parts of their identity can reinforce shame by encouraging self-doubt. Am I being picky about where I sit? Is it selfish for me to want to sit somewhere else? Am I being ungrateful, even after they reserved this space for me? Maybe I’m just being entitled. Etc.
The same idea is used in both scenarios, but in one, it attempts to rehumanize a person and include them, and in the other, it attempts to deflect from their concerns and shame them.
Disability and Theology
This happens theologically, as well. Let’s contrast some scenarios.
- A person has a painful, chronic illness, and they often imagine a life without the pain and limitations of that illness. They find hope in the Biblical stories of healing and envision a resurrection where they’re free of what binds them.
- A person has a physical disability about which they’re at peace, and they imagine a resurrection where they’re exactly as they are, physically, but free of the stress and emotional suffering with which they struggle in their everyday life (i.e. the stress of being human regardless of their physical disability).
A common theological posture in American Christianity is that both of these people will someday be “healed” of their disabilities, whether they want to be or not. In scenario one, the person’s theological imagination may be encouraged by the reminder that they’re more than their disability; new creation and resurrection may mean an existence free of their physical limitations. Even so, who they are will remain, because their disabilities don’t define them.
In scenario two, the person may be gaslit into thinking their theological imagination isn’t trustworthy. “Your identity is more than your disability,” so if you’re clinging to that vision of yourself, you’re not giving yourself over to the will of God. If God wants to heal you, why are you resisting? Do you even really want to be in heaven?
Do you see how the same idea can be helpful in one context and problematic in another? For me, this is particularly problematic when we return to the original question: did Jesus heal people who didn’t want to be healed? How we understand disabilities and the perspectives of people with disabilities changes how we imagine Jesus’s ministry and ideas like heaven, new creation, resurrected bodies, and praying for healing, which I’ll reflect on in Part 2.
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