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 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).