What Disability Theology Can Teach Science and the Church Part I
Devan Stahl and Leonard Curry discuss the growing field of disability theology, consider how theology enriches the field of medicine and bioethics, and make the case that theology can help us learn what it means to live and flourish with disability.
Leonard Curry is a social ethicist, and Devan Stahl is a bioethicist, both with backgrounds in theology. They recently co-authored an article in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics titled, “Intersections and Methods in Disability Theology: Bioethics and Critical Studies as Dialogue Partners.” In the article they discuss the growing field of disability theology, review the history of how theology has engaged topics of medicine and bioethics, and make the case that theology can help us learn what it means to live and flourish with disability. In this interview, I unpack the article with the authors. The interview has been broken down into two parts, which will be published consecutively. You can read part two here. Leonard was previously featured on our website on the topic of pastoring during a pandemic.
Ciara: As a guide to our conversation, can we start with a working definition of the word “disability.” What does it mean, or what has it historically meant?
Devan: You may not be surprised that this question puts us right in the middle of an ongoing debate between scholars, practitioners, and government agencies. The first challenge we run into is that it’s actually quite difficult to come up with one definition that will both include all things we call ‘disabilities’ but isn’t so expansive that it includes everyone. What “counts” as a disability depends on who you are asking and why they want to know. For example, are we asking about who gets access to funds, who is protected against discrimination, or who self-identifies as disabled?
The second challenge comes from a debate concerning what makes an attribute or feature “disabling.” For most people this might seem obvious: a disability is a problem or limitation of an individual’s body that may or may not be able to be fixed by medicine. This is often called the “medical model” of disability.
Disability scholars, however, have pushed back against this definition arguing instead that disability is a mismatch between a person’s body and their environment. This is often called the “social model” of disability. A person might be disabled because their society is structured in such a way that it is quite difficult for them to move about or to get a job or do other things that make their life worthwhile. When we use the term “disability” in relation to theology—this is what we mean. We don’t mean to suggest that every disability can be remedied through better social rearrangements, but we do believe that our architecture, attitudes, and customs disadvantage some bodily configurations.
When we use the term “disability” in relation to theology….We don’t mean to suggest that every disability can be remedied through better social rearrangements, but we do believe that our architecture, attitudes, and customs disadvantage some bodily configurations.
Leonard: Devan is spot on! I’ve come to think of this as “the disability frame.” This expression allows me to ask questions like “how is disability being framed?” “who framed disability in that way?” and “to what ends or for what purpose?” It also allows me to remember my communities of origin where there were persons who I would now frame as persons with disabilities but who, at the time, did not use the language of disability at all.
As Devan named, disability was medicalized through a medical model; and in my community, it was also legalized. Disability evoked narratives of governmental services, inquiries and investigations, the necessity of proving disability, and the many protracted fights to get access to services. All of that yielded the complex and uneven situation where, even though there were people in my church who were persons with intellectual disabilities, persons with emotional-social disabilities, people with physical disabilities, and neurological disabilities like epilepsy, few of them would have used “the disability frame” or self-identified as people with disabilities.
“…in my community, [disability] was…legalized. Disability evoked narratives of governmental services, inquiries and investigations, the necessity of proving disability, and the many protracted fights to get access to services. All of that yielded the complex and uneven situation where [few persons with disabilities] self-identified as people with disabilities.
Ciara: What is disability theology, and how is it different from disability studies? Is one religious and the other historically secular?
Devan: Disability theology owes much to disability studies, but I see them as distinct in important ways. Disability studies considers the meaning, nature and consequences of disability from a variety of disciplinary fields, whereas disability theology considers the causes and meanings of disability for those within various faith traditions as well as how disability challenges the ways we understand and relate to God. Christian disability theology centers disability at its starting point as a way to understand the true meaning of the gospel. Both disability theology and disability studies became self-identified fields around the time of Americans with Disabilities Act. This was a time of increased activism for people with disabilities in North America and the UK.
Interestingly, religion and theology are rarely taken up within what we typically call disability studies and disability theologians still struggle with whether it is appropriate to adopt methods and insights from disability studies. Disability theology will often use insights from disability studies, particularly when discussing different models of disability and accounting for past mistreatment of disabled people, but it also has its own sources and insights to draw from within Scripture and theology.
Leonard: As an African American who is asking questions about the inclusivity and effects of all of these discourses on black life and in particular, black people with disabilities, I have to say that from a certain perspective disability theology and disability studies don’t appear all that different; or they appear to share a deeply rooted commonality: whiteness. This is starting to change. Scholars like Audre Lord and Chris Bell have both taken up disability in their work, and theologians like M. Shawn Copeland have attended to the cost of scholarly production on the body. So, we’re getting there; we’re working our way to a discourse about disability that doesn’t take for granted an able or white or non-racial subject. In doing so, we’re trying to live into disability politics’ own slogans of access and participation for us all.
Listen to people with disabilities. Listen to what we say about ourselves, our experiences, our quality of life, and what we want. It’s amazing how many conversations about disability never include people with disabilities.
Ciara: How might the conversations around disability be safeguarded from potentially harmful theologies or even limited bioethical frameworks?
Devan: This is a great question. Theology and bioethics can both do a lot of damage to disability pride. A bioethics that positions disability as a harmful condition that ought to be prevented or eradicated can perpetuate a eugenic logic that is concretely dangerous for people with disabilities. This can take the form of denying people with disabilities life saving technologies or deprioritizing them for care when we have limited resources, as we saw during the pandemic. Theologians and churches rarely make such life-determining decisions, but bad theology can damage our psyches, create shame, and make us feel unworthy of love. The psycho-spiritual damage many disabled people have endured is just as real and crushing as the decisions made in healthcare.
The first step in both arenas is the same. Listen to people with disabilities. Listen to what we say about ourselves, our experiences, our quality of life, and what we want. It’s amazing how many conversations about disability never include people with disabilities. And of course the second step is believing people. This is a pervasive problem in healthcare. Even when surveys show that people with disabilities rate their quality of life equal to that of nondisabled people, physicians and bioethicists don’t believe them. Disability is so obviously bad that disabled people must be deluded.
This is a kind of epistemic injustice that needs to be overturned. Pastors and theologians must do likewise. Seek out your disabled congregants and neighbors and learn their stories. This isn’t to deny that disabled people can also fall victim to internalized ableism, but I fear that we haven’t even really begun a conversation that meaningfully includes disabled people.
Pastors and theologians must do likewise. Seek out your disabled congregants and neighbors and learn their stories.
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About the authors
Emily Smith | Science & Neighborliness