Reflections on the Definition of Disability
In my early research of persons with disabilities in the church, I began to define these persons as children, youth, and adults who, due to physical, mental, or emotional conditions cannot participate in church activities without assistance or accommodations beyond what is needed by the general population of that age. For example, all three-year-olds need close supervision and assistance in Sunday School, but a three-year-old with a developmental delay, autism, or physical disability may need more help than the others. Someone with mobility limitations might not be able to receive Holy Communion unless it was brought to their seat, or they were assisted in going forward.
I was pleased with this definition until I read The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. The author, Nancy Eiesland, who limits her observations to adults with physical disabilities, notes that previous definitions of disability have been based on a rehabilitation model that seeks to improve independence by treating and training persons with disabilities. Eiesland finds that this model fails to consider social aspects of disability. She proposes that persons with disabilities are defined as such by the stigma, segregation, and prejudice imposed on them by society. In other words, persons with disabilities are disabled not because of their condition, but because society (including the church) sees and treats them as less than whole (p. 28).
In Luke 5:18-26, the paralyzed man is lowered through the roof, and healed when Jesus declares his sins forgiven. This passage and many others in Old and New Testament scripture seem to relate sin to disability. Yet in John 9:1-3, Jesus tells the disciples that the man was born blind not as a result of anyone's sin, but so that God's work could be revealed. Eiesland states that this passage and Christian bent toward charity contribute to another way in which Christian theology and practice lead to viewing those with disabilities as less than whole. She calls this view "virtuous suffering" (p.72). When we see persons with disabilities as subjects of our charitable works, we fail to recognize their contribution to the church and to the spiritual growth of others.
A better way to define persons with disabilities in the context of the church is:
those persons who due to mental, physical, or emotional conditions have not been recognized as whole and complete people and have not been fully included in the life of the church.
The goal of the resources at the Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church is to assist churches who want to welcome all persons into full participation in the church regardless of abilities.
—Rev. Liz Moen
This article originally appeared in the North Texas Annual Conference Special needs Resource Ministry Guide, which the conference has transferred to the Committee.