Eric is a twenty-one-year-old college student who showed up at a weekly on-campus Bible study I lead at the University of North Texas, where he quickly became an important part of our Canterbury Episcopal Student Ministry. Serving as his priest for seven months now has been a blessing for many reasons: Eric is funny, smart, encouraging, talented, active (you should see him ballroom dance), and he is an aspiring writer. Also, Eric has a disability.
G.K. Chesterton stated, “There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” I have sought to listen to Eric’s story and have learned much as a result. Listening to his voice is important simply for the reason that he is a young college student, but also because he has a disability. Eric and I discussed disability and life over lunch and through a few emails and put together the following in hopes of creating more light and understanding around disability in the Church. I am no expert on the issue of disability, so I invite you to listen with me to my friend Eric.
Clint Wilson: Define disabled and disability, and what terms are helpful or not within (and without) the Church?
Eric E: In the medical sense, having a disability means having a mental or physical impairment that prevents certain activities from being carried out in the course of a person’s life. Also, disability is different from illness because disabilities are not damaging or degenerative. For example, muscular dystrophy can put you in a wheelchair and often leads to death at a young age, but being an otherwise healthy person who is unable to walk, see, hear, or who has cognitive difficulties is not known to shorten a person’s life.
Deciding what terms are helpful to people with disabilities is admittedly somewhat subjective. It is important to remember that “political correctness” is not the best metric for addressing disabled people’s feelings about what terms they like. For example, terms like “handicapable,” “differently abled,” and “physically challenged” are all considered politically correct, and all really bother me. A quick word about these terms:
Handicapable: This word is just incredibly cheesy, and makes me feel like I’m six. Also, I’m a writer, and this isn’t a word. I tend to think that whoever made it needs to send an apology e-mail to the Oxford Dictionary people.
Differently Abled: This is one of those terms that has a way of saying nothing and everything all at once. To me, “Differently Abled” is too general in a bad way.
Physically Challenged: For someone to be physically challenged, there has to be something that is physically challenging. At first, this description works just fine. When you’re a kid in a wheelchair trying to transfer to your bed for the first time, the space between chair and bed looks like a canyon — that’s physically challenging. When you’re a new wheelchair user trying to push up a huge hill, you’ll run out of breath for a while — that’s physically challenging. After a little while though, you realize the canyon between your bed and chair is only an inch wide, two feet high, and that the canyon floor is just a carpet. After a while your biceps grow in, and pushing up a hill becomes routine. When these kinds of triumphs happened for me, I was no more physically challenged than anyone else.
I prefer to use the word “disabled” or “disability.” To me, the word disabled is a word that is general in a very positive way. As people, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we all have or will have disabilities at some point, and I mean that very seriously — weakness or inability is human.
There are definitely words that are off limits. Consider the following:
Cripple: Cripple is an incredibly old-fashioned word and is usually first among the words we don’t want people to use. Cripple hearkens back to a time when we were abused and forced into isolation by the rest of society. You might hear people with disabilities affectionately call each other “crip” for short, but this is a case of healing by reclaiming the things that people have used to hurt us.
Broken: First, there are many people with disabilities who do not consider themselves broken and for good reason. I have been in a wheelchair my entire life, and I can do 99.9% of things by myself. In my free time I ski, SCUBA dive, work out, wall climb, and ballroom dance. To me, it seems like everything works exactly the way it is supposed to work. Also, as Christians, don’t we believe that all people experience brokenness? It’s not necessary to call out my brokenness any more than anyone else’s.
Referring to disability as “evil” or as “the work of Satan”: This might sound wild to some people, but I’ve heard this from Christians more than a few times. Saying something is evil or is the work of Satan really hits hard (it should not be done lightly). To me, if something is evil, then it is so corrupt that it is beyond repair. If this is the case with disabilities, then why do people with disabilities flourish and live long, happy lives when they find accepting and empowering communities?
CW: As a person with a disability, what are the biggest challenges you have encountered in the Church (cultural or otherwise)?
EE: The Church is a reflection of the community around it, and, although we strive to be more, we often fall prey to the same problems. The Church treats romantic relationships and marriage as an important part of Christian life. However, when the church approaches the issue of relationships and disability, they tend to have the same misconceptions the wider community does, or freeze up and don’t know what to do. Many people think that within the context of relationships we’re asexual, a-romantic, burdens, or that we’re just very special people who are “meant for celibacy.” There’s nothing wrong with being celibate, but no one should feel like they have to be celibate because they think no one will love them, especially as a Christian.
Also, the Church in America faces a serious choice when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law that guarantees people with disabilities equal rights and equal treatment under the law. The law can only hold public establishments accountable for accessibility, so technically churches and other religious institutions can get away with being inaccessible. Some of the first groups to object to the ADA were actually religious groups: the Association of Christian Schools International and the National Association of Evangelicals.
I’ve also had a personal experience with this. When I was younger, I went to an evangelical mega-church. Shortly before my family left, the church underwent a renovation. We specifically asked if they would make the stage accessible, and they said no. This really hurt for a couple of reasons: (1) In a contemporary church the stage is the center of worship. (2) This renovation centered around a massive wrought-iron cross that went from a fountain in the center of the foyer, up through the ceiling, and onto the roof. Having enough time and money for such projects while not being able to devote a small amount of time and money to building ramps is inhospitable.
I’ve also noticed that many of the altars I’ve seen are not readily accessible. Most of them have steps. What if someone with a disability feels called to ministry?
CW: Where has the Church done a good job addressing your needs? A poor job?
EE: Generally, the Episcopal/Anglican churches I have attended have done a good job listening to my problems and frustrations, and have done so with humility and a willingness to learn. I sent a letter to the Anglican church I previously attended that outlined problems I encountered there and the rector read my letter to his entire staff.
I do still encounter problems when it comes to mission work and charitable giving. I often encounter the misconception that I can’t really do anything significant to help, and as a result I’m put to the side during mission work. Responses like these unintentionally create a “hierarchy of giving” — a system where certain people are treated like “givers” while others are treated like they are meant to receive. Following God requires us to sacrifice as much as we can — we understand that. If any person wants to “pick up their cross” and follow Jesus in serving others, how can the church say “no,” even if this is communicated only implicitly?
CW: How can the Church empower the disabled?
EE: Disability is not just about bodies that work differently, and there is no single story that fits “the disability narrative” completely. If the church wants to reach out to people with disabilities, then we need to be allowed to tell our own stories, explain our own feelings, and the Church’s ministries need to listen well and be responsive.
The Church needs to tackle the social, economic, and political issues that we currently face instead of just talking about healing. First, this is because there are many people (like myself) who don’t think they are physically broken in the first place. Secondly, medical advances to allow for healing are already being intensely studied by the medical community. In the meantime, many of the problems that people with disabilities face today are not symptoms of disability, but symptoms of discrimination against disability.
When parents with disabilities have their children taken away for no other reason than the parent being disabled, or when a disabled woman is coerced into sterilization, their disability is almost never the problem. The problem is ignorance and fear. (You can read more about these issues here.)
When companies like Goodwill pay their employees with disabilities far below minimum wage, the problem is not disability — the problem is injustice. (Read about it here.)
CW: Are there any particular experiences with individuals in the Church that frustrated you? What would you tell these people, if you could?
EE: I’ve had a couple that really bothered me. When there is another wheelchair user in the church who is my age, but viewed as “less capable” than me, people often compare the two of us. This usually ends with people congregating around me while the other person is treated like they are lazy or have a bad attitude. First, I’d say that if a person with a disability asks you to tie their shoe, hold a door, or help them eat, it’s more than likely because they can’t do it themselves. That’s okay. Laziness is no more a characteristic of disabled people than it is for non-disabled people. I’d also ask you to consider, “How do you want this person to feel? What do you think your actions are doing to this person’s self esteem?”
I’ve also run into people (who usually don’t know me) who think I’m inspirational. There are several things these people need to know. First, “inspirational” is a very heavy word, and they need to get to know me before they make that judgment. Secondly, I’ve definitely experienced things that are unusual and sometimes scary, but that’s not my normal. On a normal day, I’m doing the same things most twenty-one-year-olds are doing. Third, the way that these people think I’m inspirational sets an incredibly low bar for me. Many times, people in these situations are working under the assumption that my life is so awful that it must be a challenge just to get out of bed. It isn’t; their idea of the challenges I face day-to-day is incorrect. The majority of the frustration and isolation in my life does not come from my physical condition; it comes from judgment and discrimination.
CW: The Episcopal Church & the Anglican tradition are known for having liturgy that is “participatory” and “multi-sensory.” In fact, for many it is a point of pride that we are not a “sit back, relax and enjoy the show” kind of tradition. How would you describe your experience and participation in the liturgy? What are the greatest joys and challenges for you in the liturgy?
EE: As far as challenges go, the liturgy can be quite the “page-turner.” This sounds like a small problem, but my lap is a very important space for me. Having two books and a pamphlet to flip between can get a little hectic, but to me it is also a part of acknowledging and participating in the Church’s rich history.
With regard to joys, I’ve gone to churches that worship in the Anglican tradition since I was fourteen, and the liturgy is definitely one of the reasons why I’ve stayed. I’m very ADD and slightly ADHD, and during unstructured worship my mind goes everywhere. The liturgy allows me to stay present. I also think the confession of sin, in particular, can have an important role in reconciling minority groups with those who have hurt or misunderstood them. On the one hand, I think the majority tends to have an attitude of “Well we tried, and that’s what counts, right?” This is an attempt to excuse themselves from taking a hard look at their actions. The confession of sin calls them to look at the things they’ve done, things they’ve left undone, and the good intentions that didn’t pan out the way they should have. On the other hand, the minority tends to reserve the right to be vengeful and vindictive. The confession beckons away from hate and anger, and helps them to understand and forgive as a part of striving for justice and reconciliation.
Prayer to be a Witness
Loving God, you teach us that the power of the Holy Spirit
means more than any human limitation or weakness.
Through surrender to your will,
may we bear witness to the truth
that the source of our human dignity
is not the outward condition of the body,
but our likeness to the creator.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
It is important to note that the community of people with disabilities is very diverse. Eric’s views represent one kind of experience with disability, and do not completely apply to all people with disabilities, nor do they necessarily represent the views of TLC or the Covenant community. For further reading check out “Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation & the theology of the Cross,” and Anna Sutherland’s assessment of the same at First Things. Read also the Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities.
The featured image by Jurgen Kubel is licensed under Creative Commons.