Tag Archives: disability

The Bible and Disability

August 2018 Credo

Secular scholars who write on disability are often critical of religious accounts mostly because of the latter’s allegedly negative approaches. They point out that in Christianity – for example – disability is often associated with sin and divine punishment.

To be sure, there are passages in the Bible that speak of God inflicting disabilities such as blindness as punishment for sin and disobedience. For example, we find in Leviticus clear warnings that disease and disability are some of the dire consequences of idolatry: ‘I will bring upon sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain your life away’ (26: 16).

In similar vein, the Deuteronomist lists insanity and blindness as possible punishment for disobedience: ‘The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28-29).

Not only does the Bible associate disability with sin, it even appears to exclude people of disabilities from participating in the worship of God in the temple.

For example, in Leviticus we read: ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand …’ (Leviticus 21: 16-19).

Judith Adams succinctly summarises this passage thus: ‘In the most perfect of places – that is, the temple – in the presence of the most perfect entity – that is, God – only the perfect of persons, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished)’.

Christian authors like Nancy Eiseland have eschewed traditional interpretations of these passages and advanced a new hermeneutic – in her case, liberationist – in order to make sense of them. To Eiseland, traditional hermeneutics must be rejected because it is in subtle ways complicit in the unjust discrimination and ostracization of people with disabilities.

‘The history of the church’s interaction with the disabled’, she writes rather despairingly in Disabled God, ‘is at best an ambiguous one. Rather than being a structure for empowerment, the church has more often supported the societal structures and attitudes that have treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism’.

However, to focus only on what some passages have to say about disabilities and neglect the others is to fail to appreciate the Bible’s nuanced and complex treatment of the issue.

For example, alongside the passage in Leviticus cited above we have this remarkable injunction: ‘You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:14).

The juxtaposition of such passages should give pause to any reader who is inclined to conclude, all too hastily, that the Bible puts disabled people in a negative light or that it encourages their oppression.

The careful reader of the Old Testament cannot fail to notice that in the remarkable passages that speak of the restoration of Israel, the inclusion of people with disabilities are repeatedly (and quite deliberately) mentioned.

An example of such a passage is Jeremiah 31 where God reassures his exiled people that they will return to a restored Jerusalem: ‘Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest part of the earth, among them the blind and the lame’ (v 8).

In similar vein, in Micah we read: ‘In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame … and the lame will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation’ (4:6, 7).

Scripture does not only speak of the inclusion of disabled people, but their healing and restoration as well.

‘In that day’, Isaiah writes, ‘the deaf will hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see’ (29: 18). And again: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (35:5-6).

These passages about restoration and healing in the OT surely anticipate the ministry of Jesus himself, who in inaugurating God’s kingdom healed the sick and people with disabilities. The healing miracles of Jesus are signs of the divine kingdom that will be consummated when Jesus returns, a new heavens and a new earth free from sin, disease and disabilities.

To understand what the Bible has to say about disabilities, one must therefore go beyond the exegesis of individual texts and get a sense of the profound and comprehensive picture it presents – of creation, human beings as bearers of the divine image, the fall and redemption.

Most significantly, we have to glean what the Bible has to say about the eschaton, the consummation of the kingdom of God, the universal resurrection and the transfiguration of this sin-marred world into the new creation.

However, this eschatological vision – found in Scripture and taught by the Church – is seen by some theologians writing on disability not as a testimony of hope but rather as the basis for discrimination. This is truly regrettable.

But this stupendous vision of the things to come is indispensable if we are to achieve a realistic appreciation of the world in which we live.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg has put it: ‘Only in the light of the eschatological consummation is the verdict justified that in the first creation story the Creator pronounced at the end of the sixth day when he had made the first human pair: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Only in the light of the eschatological consummation may this be said of our world as it is in all its confusion and pain’.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Designer Disability?

February 2017 Pulse

In 2002, the Washington Post Magazine published a story of an American lesbian couple, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough – both of whom are deaf – who had deliberately chosen to have a deaf baby. A friend of theirs, with five generations of deafness in his family, donated his sperm.

The couple succeeded: their child Gauvin McCullough has only a very slight amount of hearing in one ear.

Duchesneau and McCullough are not the only couple that has chosen to have a child with a disability. In 2008, BBC News reported that Tomato Lichy and his partner Paula Garfield also tried to have a disabled baby through IVF.

A survey conducted by Baruch, Kaufman and Hudson in 2006 showed that couples who deliberately choose to have children with conditions commonly seen as disabilities are not as uncommon as one would imagine.

The highly-publicised case of the American lesbian couple cited above has ignited a fierce debate in the popular press as well as in academic journals on medical ethics across the globe.

The responses have been extremely polarised. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who strongly condemn the couple for deliberately bringing a disabled child into the world. On the other end are those who applaud them for exercising their right and autonomy.

Should people with inherited disabilities be allowed to select children with the genetic disposition to have similar disabilities?

The answer to this question is made more complex by recent discourse on disability.

There are some who argue that a distinction must be made between disability and impairment. Disability, they insist, is a social construct that has resulted in discrimination against people with physical impairments.

For example, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) maintains that “it is society which disables physically impaired people”. It asserts: “Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

According to those who espouse such a view, deafness is merely a physical impairment, not a disability.

This approach to the issue is, in my view, misguided. While concern about discrimination against disabled people in our society is justified, the theory that all disabilities are social constructs that have served as the basis for discrimination must be called into question.

Once this theory is set aside, the sharp distinction that UPIAS makes between disability and impairment would appear contrived and even absurd. Certain forms of physical impairment are in fact serious disabilities.

Physical disability may be defined as a condition that limits and incapacitates a person in such a way that it potentially, if not in actuality, reduces his ability to flourish. Seen in this way, blindness and deafness are disabilities.

While it is true that discrimination and social insensitivity (for example, the failure to alter the built environment for people with disabilities) would considerably further compromise the quality of life of disabled people, it does not change the fact that their disability itself is an impediment to their flourishing.

Thus, if we were to place a blind person on deserted island where there is no discrimination, his blindness would still be an impediment to his wellbeing.

In the Gospels we find Jesus healing the blind, the deaf and the mute (Mark 8:22-25; Mark 7:31-37). This shows that disabilities are not part of God’s plan when he created human beings, but the result of sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. The healing ministry of Jesus shows that salvation has to do with restoration of the wholeness that was compromised in the original Fall.

Whatever may be the philosophical rationale or emotional motivations, to deliberately bring a deaf child into the world is therefore surely at odds with God’s will and purpose for creation.

But what about those who wish to defend the autonomy of the couple – their freedom to choose?

In Christian ethics, freedom should always be exercised responsibly. The couple that exercises their right to deliberately bring a child with a disability into the world must ask themselves if they have acted responsibly. They must ask if they have acted in the best interest of their child, who will have to cope with this disability for the rest of his life.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

Thinking about Disability

In recent years, a number of fine monographs have been published on disability from the Christian perspective. Many of these publications have encouraged deeper and more nuanced reflection on the complex issues associated with our understanding of people with disabilities. They have also helpfully brought to light some prejudices that have subtly shaped certain societal attitudes, norms and conventions. Embedded deeply in our collective consciousness and in our culture is the proclivity to view disability in generally negative terms. Disability is often seen as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘problem’. Consequently, the disabled person is often looked upon as an object of charity. This medical model of disability (about which I have more to say later in this article) is very influential and pervasive in modern society.

Our attitude towards people with disabilities is sometimes tellingly betrayed by language that habitually if unconsciously makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We should never dismiss this as just a question of language. Such distinctions reveal the psychological and relational distance between ‘normal’ people (an expression that must be subjected to careful theological analysis and critique) and disabled people, a distance mostly due to the former’s perception of the alien-ness and strangeness of the latter’s condition. Very often our response to a person with disability is not dependant on our understanding of his or her experience. Rather it is based on what psychologists call sympathetic imagination, that is, the uneasy feelings aroused within us as we put ourselves in the place of such people. Again, it is imperative that we should never take this sentiment lightly. Sympathetic imagination arguably may well be that powerful visceral impulsion behind the support for euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

It is this amorphous and often unarticulated dread of disability that leads certain members of society to stigmatise people with disability. In his classic treatment of the subject entitled, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman explains that a person possesses a stigma if he or she is marked by ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’. A stigma is something that we project onto the person who does not conform to our ideas of normalcy. As Goffman points out: ‘One can therefore suspect that the role of normal and the role of stigmatized are parts of the same complex, cuts from the same standard cloth’. Once stigmatised, people with disabilities are treated as taboos. Like the stigma, the taboo is also a social construct based on how the dominant group defines nature or the natural. That which does not fit into our concept of the normal is deemed deformed and dysfunctional. And this includes people who are crippled, maimed and diseased. The intellectually challenged – the idiot, retarded and imbecile – must also join their ranks.

One of the reasons why disabled people are perceived so negatively is the prevalence of the medical model of disability. In criticising this model, I am not disparaging the marvellous advances in medicine and biotechnology that have alleviated human suffering, including that of disabled persons. But in reducing disability only to a problem of diagnosis and treatment, the medical model has fostered a narrow and even jaundiced understanding of disabled people. Because of the medical model, disability is often seen as a liability from the standpoint of society. Needless to say, this perspective is so powerful in modern society that many disabled persons see themselves as victims of personal tragedy and as a burden to society. ‘The medical model and its stress on cure and rehabilitation’, writes theologian Thomas Reynolds perceptively, ‘not only fails to address this broader issue, it inadvertently perpetuates processes of disempowerment, exclusion, and isolation, concealing deeper attitudinal, employment-related, educational, and architectural obstacles to genuine inclusion’.

In order for society to reflect more deeply on disability, a more profound vision of what it means to be human and of human sociality is needed. I believe that Scripture and the great theological traditions of the Church can inspire such a vision. The most profound teaching of both Scripture and tradition is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore must be valued, respected and loved. This includes the disabled person, who even in his or her disabilities, mysteriously and beautifully reflects the Creator. On the basis of this theological premise, it follows that the person with disabilities, like every human being, possesses innate, sacred and inviolable rights that must be respected and honoured. At the heart of this Christian teaching is the conviction that no disability, handicap or impairment, however severe and crippling, can rob the disabled person of his or her dignity as a creature made in God’s image.

The disabled, according to the Christian understanding, should never be stigmatised or regarded as taboo. They must never be seen as a liability or as a burden to society. Rather, in a profound sense their presence enables us to discover the deepest meaning of our shared humanity. The disabled opens up to us new vistas of human existence, and avail to us fresh insights into personhood. They point us to the true nobility and dignity of a human being as the privileged bearer of the divine image and thus enable us to get in touch with the essence of our own being. The disabled in some ways also ‘force’ us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and neediness (perhaps that is precisely why we shun them!). They remind us that we too are part of this fallen reality, and thus in need of the promised healing, restoration and salvation in Christ. And they teach us how to wait patiently for God’s salvation. Put simply, in their limitations and suffering, the disabled quietly teach us how to be.

As the community of believers who has experienced the saving and transforming grace of God, the Church should openly and lovingly welcome people of disabilities. She should do so not condescendingly out of pity, but generously, recognising the disabled other as a person whom God loves. Christian hospitality is motivated by the unconditional and generous love of God that Christians have received in abundance in Christ: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Such hospitality creates a relationship of reciprocity where mutual giving and receiving takes place in the spontaneity of agape love. In welcoming people of disabilities the Church must not only ask what she can do for them. She must also empower the disabled to find their own place in the community and to creatively use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ. And it is in this relationship of mutual love and respect, what the Bible calls koinonia, that both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed are transformed by the power of the Spirit.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in Word@Work (March 2014).

A Life Deemed ‘Useless’ – The Terri Schiavo Case

As I write this essay, a woman’s body is shutting down from starvation and dehydration because of the decision made by her husband and a court order issued by Florida judge, George Greer. Terri Schiavo collapsed on 25 February, 1990, when her heart stopped momentarily, resulting in severe brain damage. Fifteen years later, her husband, Michael Schiavo, who now has two children with another woman, is insistent that his wife would not want to be kept alive. He succeeded in obtaining a court order from the Florida Supreme Court to have the small feeding tube removed. Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought the court order but were unsuccessful at overturning the decision, and on 18 March, the feeding tube        that supplied nourishment and hydration to the 41- year old patient was removed. Despite appeals by Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida judge refused to allow Terri Schiavo to be taken into protective custody. President George Bush and the Republican leaders of the U.S. Governor said that all legal options have been exhausted and that they would not go any further. Barring a miracle, Terri Schiavo will be starved to death.

The Schiavo case has polarised ethicists and the general public alike. Clarity can only be achieved when ideological agendas are set aside and the facts of the case are carefully and thoroughly examined. The first step is to understand Terri Schiavo’s medical condition. She is not brain-dead, but is in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). This means that her brain is severely damaged, and as far as doctors can tell, she is unaware of her surroundings, although she has emerged from a comatose state. It must be added that medical science has yet to fully understand this condition, and doctors are often reduced to resorting to educated guesses – there are no blood tests, scans or other investigations that could confirm the diagnosis. The degree of awareness exhibited by such patients, cannot be ascertained with any exactitude by doctors, and the view which categorically states that such patients have     no awareness of their surroundings is at least debatable. Those who are close to Terri, including her mother, have noticed some responses when they speak to her (see video at www.Terrisfight.org).

Although patients seldom recover after being in a permanent vegetative state for 12 months, there are isolated cases of such recovery. An article by N. L. Childs and W. N. Mercer in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (1985, 48: 1300-1303) reports the case of a girl who recovered sufficiently after being in a PVS for six years to communicate with simple sentences.

Terri is not dependent on any machine that artificially enables certain of her organs to function, only a small gastric tube that supplied nutrients and water. In other words, Terri is not hooked on a life-supporting machine. She is a healthy woman with a disability and merely requires to be artificially fed. She is disabled, not terminal. The gastric tube cannot be seen as an ‘extraordinary’ measure or a therapeutic measure; it is an essential means through which Terri receives the required nutrients and hydration. Although Terri is deprived of full consciousness, she must be seen as a living human being, whose judicial rights and dignity must be recognised, respected and defended. As Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore has rightly insisted, ‘Deliberately to remove them in order to hasten the patient’s death … would be a form of euthanasia, which is gravely wrong’.

The American Medical Association defines euthanasia as the ‘act of bringing about the death of a hopelessly ill and suffering person in a relatively quick and painless way for reasons of mercy’. This is done through ‘the medical administration of a lethal agent to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering’. Terri Schiavo is being euthanized by starvation and dehydration.

Her death, however, will not be ‘quick and painless’. In his article published in The Straits Times (28 March, 2005, p.20) Andy Ho describes the harrowing process that a person dying from starvation and dehydration goes through. The mouth dries out while the tongue becomes swollen and cracked. The eyes sink and the cheeks are hollowed out, while the nose bleeds and the skin becomes loose and scaly. The urine gets very concentrated, burning the bladder even as the lining of the stomach dries out resulting in vomiting. The brain cells begin to dry out as the body temperature rises uncontrollably, causing fits to occur. Before the vital organs start to fail resulting in death, the lungs also dry out and they are clogged by their own secretions causing the patient to choke on their own sputum.  This is the process that Terri Schiavo is going through as her body slowly shuts down because it is deliberately deprived of food and water.

The removal of the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo is a direct violation of the commandment ‘not to kill’. No one has the right to take a human life, not even his or her own. Life is never our own possession but is always to be received from moment to moment as a gift from the Creator, and cannot be disposed of as we wish. Supporters of euthanasia have often presented the right to autonomy and self-determination as its justification. This is especially true of voluntary euthanasia, which the AMA Council defines as ‘euthanasia that is provided for a competent person on his or her informed request’. This principle is behind the ‘right-

to-die’ argument, although almost always with the qualification that it applies only to those who are terminally ill and in great pain. The question, however, is that if the right-to-life is so fundamental, why should it be confined only to this category of people? Why should this principle not apply also to those who are not terminally ill, but who feel that their lives are meaningless?

Those who supported Michael Schiavo’s decision have appealed to the quality-of-life argument. Without doubt, the quality-of-life argument in favour of euthanasia is the most harmful for life in society because it works on the basic presumption that there are certain people who have the right to judge whether the lives of other persons are worthwhile or valuable. However, as moral theologian Bernard Häring has rightly observed, their judgement ‘can not only be contemptuous, but it represents a death sentence’.

Michael Schiavo and the Florida judge have decided to execute Terri on the basis of their evaluation that she does not enjoy the quality-of-life that she should. Because of their evaluation, they are willing to subject Terri to the most inhumane execution. The people who speak so passionately and nobly about the quality of life are willing to force upon an innocent human being such an undignified death. As Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, puts it, ‘If it is true that the process has been fair, and that all legal avenues have been exhausted, how is it that this woman, who has done no wrong, will suffer a fate which society would never tolerate in the case of a convicted murderer, or anyone else convicted of the most horrendous crimes?’ Because of their verdict they were willing to submit Terri to such acts of cruelty from which even animals are protected by law. For in the State of Florida it is unlawful to keep an animal in a place while failing to supply ‘a sufficient quantity of good and wholesome food and water ’.

The case of Terri Schiavo brings much darkness to our modern society. Are we so blinded that we fail to see that we cannot inflict this sort of death on a human being without each individual and society as a whole suffering its terrible consequences?

*** Terri Schiavo died on 31 March, 13 days after her gastric tube was removed. This essay was written three days before her death.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Trumpet (TTC).