by A’ishah Hils.
Disclaimer – This is heavily skewed by my own faith background and informed by my experiences in Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities. It is not a theological investigation, though I’d be happy to talk theology via email or in the comments; it is more of a personal observation based in my own study and experiences.
I have always been disabled, religious, and queer. These are some of the things that have made up my identity for as long as I can remember, although I didn’t come into critical awareness of all of them together until my teens and some of the labels have changed over time. As far as I know, I was born this way, though whether or not I was born this way does not matter as much to me as the fact that I am this way.
I have always felt simultaneously at home and on the outside in faith communities. While I am just as connected to the divine in my house, there is something powerful to me about being in spiritual community, but going to a temple, church, or mosque and not knowing if I will even be able to enter the prayer area makes me feel unwanted.
I didn’t begin to think critically about how disability and faith intertwine until much later in life, though. The first time I deeply thought about the connection between disability and faith was in college as a religious studies major, when I read “Mildred, is it fun to be a cripple?” by Robert Orsi, which is a chapter from one of his books that delves into discourses of faith and disability in Catholicism. I saw my own faith traditions in the article, but more importantly, I saw how some religious narratives about disability are common over many different faiths – and how deeply those religious narratives are ingrained in our supposedly secular society.
Some of these narratives include: disability is only or primarily a source of suffering and tribulation; it is a spiritual blessing to the disabled person to suffer in silence; improving life here isn’t that important, because being disabled means we’ll be more blessed in the next life; there should be a top-down charity relationship between disabled and non-disabled people; disability is a punishment for something we have done wrong and thus we might be impure or cursed; curing disability is a miracle. These narratives come from a history of institutionalized religious oppression of the disabled, and many of them are related to the narratives used to oppress other minorities (such as poor folks).
They also form the basis of how we understand disability in American society. They have created a culture of top-down charity, denying disabled people our agency. Most financial resources are put into researching a cure rather than improving our daily lives. The public discourse about us revolves solely around suffering; we are not seen as multi-dimensional people who experience pain, pleasure, joy, and sadness along with everyone else. And we are a source of terror; it is easier to pretend we are invisible because the reality of our experience (or what people think is our experience) is seen as worse than death by many non-disabled people. Non-disabled people often live in fear of turning out like us, or having children who might be like us, or even having to interact with us in all of our stimming, spazzing weirdness.
Nowadays, most of my work involves talking about disability, self-advocacy, and accessibility, and I often do this in faith communities, which gives me some opportunities to address these narratives. In Abrahamic faith environments, I usually begin by saying that we are all made in the image of God and God doesn’t make mistakes (we hope!). Most people I talk to agree with this basic assumption. For many of them, this assumption is why they are deeply concerned about the sanctity of life. Except – very few of them think about disability (and for that matter being queer) in the context of this very basic assumption. Being disabled and queer isn’t seen as a basic part of who we are, how we were created – it is seen as a spiritual trial we must get through so that one day (in this life or the next) we might be cured and that way we can be good able-bodied and straight religious people.
Because of that inconsistency, I know many religious people who see – in the absence of any miracle cures – euthanasia, abortion of disabled fetuses, and sometimes even murder of disabled youth and adults as a spiritual mercy. Oddly enough, those same people rarely seem to see disabled people being accepted into society, having self-determination, having access to good health care, and being treated as more than a source of pity and inspiration as a spiritual mercy.
To me, this view directly contradicts what is said in the Bible, the Qur’an, and many other religious texts about the nature of human beings. For me, as a person of faith, it all turns on this: if there is a divine source or some sort of spiritual meaning to life, and that divine source doesn’t love disabled people and think we are just as deserving of full lives as non-disabled people, then there is no reason to believe. Furthermore, if that divine source is not opposed to oppression of disabled people and other minorities, then there is no reason to believe. To paraphrase the words of Black liberation theologian James Cone, if God is not on the side of the oppressed and against oppression, then God is irrelevant to the oppressed.
Most religious institutions have a history of oppressing disabled people, but many of us – or at least I – cannot deny the fact that I am a person of faith. I cannot deny my faith, and so I must resist the entrenched ableism in religious communities. Because that ableism informs so much of the rest of our society, I believe we must all resist it.
I believe and will always believe that I was created in the image of God and God doesn’t make mistakes. But sometimes, like Jean in Harriet McBryde Johnson’s book Accidents of Nature, “I yearn for a Bible story about a cripple who isn’t cured.”