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Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

A Case for Disability Spirituality

By Brenda Brown-Grooms

Professor John M. Hull is an honorary professor of practical theology in the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, England.

John Hull giving the address in the Queen's Chapel

Hull, who became blind in the middle of his career, wrote the seminal article “A Spirituality of Disability: The Christian Heritage as both Problem and Potential” in Studies in Christian Ethics (vol.16 no. 2, 2003, pp. 21-35) . In the article, he discusses how disability contributes to spirituality in that “the various disabilities extend the range of humanity and thus provide for greater inclusivity.”

He reckons that how individuals experience reality represents different worlds within the world. The able-bodied world represents the majority of people -- and the most powerful group. In fact, every other experience of existence is thought to be inferior to that, even by "other-abled" (nondisabled) peoples.

Recognizing that there is a “plurality of human worlds” presents a way to challenge “the hegemony of the powerful and thus becomes politically significant,” Hull wrote. Said another way, recognizing that reality is experienced differently by other-abled people, who are thought to be made inferior by their "other-abledness," brings into question the view that able-bodiedness is or should be preferable, and that those who are able-bodied should and must have the power to determine what disability means and how it is handled in society.

The fact that the Catholic Church's views on what it means to be “crippled” and the possibility for healing is both problematic and full of potential for those who seek to balance the worlds of able-bodiedness and other-abledness. Hull examines this subject on the basis of epistemology, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge,

According to Hull, the transfiguration and resurrection of Jesus Christ both sanction and illustrate the view that there is spiritual development “within the Christian tradition.” He further believes that there are different bodies, although “there is only one human species” (that is, a blind person lives in a blind world; a deaf person lives in a deaf world). “Each human world has its own distinctive characteristics and its own limited autonomy.”

“The criteria of transcendence and transfiguration also apply to the spiritual development of disabled people,” wrote Hull, who believes that Christian heritage helps people “conceive of a multiplicity of known and lived human worlds.”

Hull cites two advantages to being able to conceive of many known and lived human worlds (or realities):

  • The fact that there is more than one way to experience being alive means that humans can conceive of and live out of “a spirituality of disability which is not based upon a theology of deficiency … (a)s long as the disabilities are mainly understood as lacking something, their intrinsic character as worlds (ways to experience reality) will be overlooked, and they will be understood as mere exclusions from the big world. This view of disability challenges the unconscious hegemony of the average, the majority, and thus opposes all ideologies of domination, whether they are aware or not of their power.”
  • Understanding disability as a kind of spirituality “extends our understanding of humanity itself by denying exclusive humanity to the majority and insisting upon the genuinely human character of the disabled worlds. In this way, humanity is enriched through variety. Plurality is richer than uniformity, and the different human worlds need each other to achieve full humanness.”

One of the reasons those who consider themselves normal, able-bodied and thus superior to those they consider to be abnormal and disabled is that, in part, the Church seems to sanction such belief. When Jesus heals, it is said to be because a person is not whole. It is often lost both on the onlookers, and on future believers as well, that the disease Jesus is curing may be both spiritual and physical or caused by a spiritual imbalance.

To the extent that brokenness in the physical body or mind is seen as inferior, cursed or even alien to the human condition and, to the extent that healing as depicted in the Bible is interpreted as signs of sin and otherness outside God's ability and willingness to bless, Christian heritage is a problem for other-abled people. To the extent that such healings are understood to be special gifts that do not mean that the one being healed is unworthy of God without them and, to the extent that such gifts are not understood to be necessary in order for the one being healed to be counted worthy of entering the larger world, Christian heritage has a vast potential to bring theological and, thus, political significance to those who are other-abled. In fact, conceding that other-abled human beings are just as human as any other human being is the beginning of a spirituality of disability.

Imagine a world where all people are counted as worthy of their space on the planet.

Brenda Brown-Grooms, a pastor who lives in Charlottesville, Va., is a stroke survivor.

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