It is estimated that 15 percent of any given population has disabilities that are visible, and that percentage would climb if we were to include things that are invisible to the eye, such as mental illness. (Tataryn, 18) Yet does such a large percentage of the population get to participate fully in the society in which it finds itself? Furthermore, does the society to which these individuals belong find themselves able to benefit from what these people have to offer? When people with impairments aren’t able to participate fully in the society to which they belong they are existing in a space where ableism is defining how they are perceived and treated.
“’Ableism’ names a subtle and pervasive bias that assumes nondisabled people…are ‘normal’ and that people with disabilities represent an undesirable deviation from this norm. The disability is seen as a personal dilemma to be privately endured and we’ve placed the responsibility to adapt on the individual with the disability.” (Kujawa-Holbrook, 211) Ableism is able to seen in all sectors of society. As an example, the church I attend just announced that a sign language interpreter would now be available for the hearing impaired during one of their five services. While this is certainly a step forward, it puts a constraint on when hearing-impaired people can attend service and groups them all together, effectively segregating them from the rest of the congregation. Many of the videos posted to media by my church also do not have subtitles, so it can be challenging for a person with that kind of impairment to feel truly connected to the community.
Publicly we face many ableism challenges, particularly in Cincinnati. Often aisles and entryways are not spaced appropriately for people in wheelchairs and in downtown areas they sometimes don’t have curb cuts or ramps. Additionally, entry into buildings or the use of a bathroom is often not possible because of the older buildings and lack of updates. Usually if my family is going out, we go someplace familiar or check out the location beforehand in order to confirm it is actually wheelchair accessible. This is true of many social gathering spaces, although the growing occurrence of family restrooms is very helpful and accommodating. However, when it comes to swimming pools or entertainment parks the options can be very limiting with no way to gain access to many of the rides or amusements.
Even in politics, the issues of disability are not often discussed unless it is in relation to the elderly or soldiers. That ties it even more to the idea, as the book mentions, that “disability” is a matter of tragedy rather than circumstance. Perhaps the reason it is so little discussed is because of the challenges faced in voting. Where many without impairments complain of the difficulty of voting, the impossibility for some to potentially obtain transportation, wait in line and navigate the voting booth can be a challenge. If they have a home, they can certainly write-in, but many who are disabled by our society find themselves homeless and therefore struggle to have a political voice.
When we look at theology, it is most certainly influenced by the perspective one has biblically. Does one view God as a Creator who spoke diversity into existence and continued to create and inspire diversity in His creations, as he did when He created humankind or told Noah to preserve the diverse life He had created through the Ark? Or does their view of God tie sin to differences between people and ignore that Jesus chooses to hang out with those who the Pharisees called “unclean” over those who were “pure?” Jesus demonstrates clearly that even those whose impairments were linked to their own personal sin were not made any less human because of it or any less worthy of His love and community. Furthermore, as a community, we are called to be one another’s burden bearers in Galatians 6:2.
But the attitude we more often hear says that a person’s life choices caused them to be in the situation in which they find themselves, supporting an ableist perspective. This could be things that people sometimes attribute to character flaws instead of illness or social injustice: addiction, prison sentences for past mistakes, diabetes or an eating disorder. But even if that were the case, it doesn’t change the fact that they are as much human as you or I and equally deserving of our love and companionship. When our ministry doesn’t resemble the ministry of Christ in the way that He dined, preached and lived alongside ALL in his community, we are allowing the paradigm of ableism to carry social injustice into our ministry and potentially nullify it.
Kujawa-Holbrook, Sheryl (Ed.) & Montagno, Karen (Ed.). Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. Print.
Tataryn, Myroslaw & Truchan-Tataryn. Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference. United States of America: Novalis Publishing, 2013. Print.