Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Christian View of Disability

I am closely related to someone who suffered from a disability and from immense mental agony due to the popular misconception of disability and the resulting stigma. Also I have very close friends who suffer from various disabilities, and I have friends who suffer due to their relatives' disabilities. This is what inspired me to take a close look at the question of disability. 

The Popular Paradigm of Disability
It has been widely believed that while most of the people are able, a few people are disabled.The term disabled often refers to the physically disabled ones such as the blind, the deaf, and the lame. Chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are also sometimes seen as disabilities. Chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are often seen as worse than disabilities. They were seen as demon possession in Jesus' world. 

Those people who see themselves as able have diverse attitudes to people with disabilities. In many societies people with disabilities are ignored and are left to their fate. The civilized societies identify the people with disabilities and work out ways to help them.  Close friends and family often care for people with disabilities. A few people often develop a hostile attitude to people with disabilities. The Pharisees in the gospels have such an attitude. People with disabilities are often seen as parasites, depending on those people who are able. As a result, people with disabilities have low self-esteem. They look upon themselves as cursed and unfortunate.

When people with visible disabilities are classified into a group, and are labeled as disabled people, a social disability is imposed on them in addition to their primary disability. This secondary imposed social disability is much more severe and worse than their primary disability. If only a few are disabled, they feel shame about their disability, and they will be looked down upon by others. When a class of people is created based on their disability, and when they are looked down upon by the others, a secondary social disability (stigma) is added on top of their original one. Most often such a social stigma is much more severe and hard to bear than the original disabilities.

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios (1997), writing his autobiography at the age of 70, narrates his most painful experience as a teenager—his mother becoming mentally ill. Some days, his mother would go and stand on the roadside verandah of their house, doing all kinds of pranks and talking all kinds of nonsense particularly when the road was full of children going to school. They were his classmates and schoolmates, and he was filled with shame that they watched his mother in this condition.

Reading about this heartbreaking story, the one question that may surface in our mind is this: Why does an illness or a disability cause shame? Why does a disabled person feel inferior, and why do others look down upon them?

Current Attempts to Face the Problem
I made a quick examination of the current studies and views of disability. Deborah Creamer (2006) provides a summary of the prominent theological models of disability -- the Accessible God by Jennie Weiss Block, the Inclusive God by Kathy Black, and the Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland. These models suggest alternative models of God so that the people of disability might be included in the mainstream society. I feel sympathy for their attempts to develop a model of God that can empower the disabled people. This reminds me of the the feminists who claim that God is a female, and the Blacks who claim that God is black. If the disabled people believe that God is disabled, they get convinced that God is on their side, and this serves to boost their self esteem. However, the basis to prove that God is disabled is not strong enough, and this belief cannot be sustained for long. These views serves to revolt against the current popular views, but a satisfactory alternative view is yet to be developed.

The Christian Paradigm of Disability
Failing to find a satisfactory approach in the current studies, I turn to my own religious tradition-- the eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. Putting together the insights, a very satisfactory view of disability can be derived. 

We will proceed by asking the basic questions: What is disability? Who are disabled? What causes it? Pursuing these questions, we will distinguish between a surface view of disability and a deeper view of disability. The surface view is readily visible without any effort, but the deeper view comes to sight only with some effort. While most of the people hold the surface view, a few people hold the deeper view. Thus the surface view is more popular and widely held and acceptable than the deeper view. These two views are often contradictory to each other. Here an effort is made to expose the fallacy of the surface view of disability and to bring a deeper view to sight.

The popular view of disability that a few people are disabled and the rest are fully able is a surface view that is readily visible without any effort. This view limits disability to physical disabilities, chronic illnesses, and perhaps also to a few chronic debilitating mental illnesses. Taking a closer look, we realize that physical disability is only one of the various kinds of disabilities. It seems that our disabilities are more mental than physical. It is common knowledge that a human being is made of body and mind, which are like the hardware and software of a computer. The software is the real stuff of a computer. The hardware serves as a body to the software by making it accessible to our senses. This is true about the human mind and body too. The body is simply an expression of the mind. To use another metaphor, the body is a vehicle for the mind just like we use a car. The mind, which is invisible, becomes visible through the body. The disabilities of the body are easy to detect and identify, but the disabilities of the mind are not so easy to detect or identify. A human mind has so many different parts and departments. Mental abilities may be broadly classified into the abilities to think, remember, imagine, feel, will, be aware, and pay attention. A mental disability may refer to the disability of any one of those parts. Mental disabilities are much more complex and much more debilitating than physical ones. Mental disabilities include not only schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but also all the disabilities of the various aspects of human mind.

There are also social disabilities and economic disability. Those with economic disability are usually called poor, and they have a lack or shortage of the basic necessities of life-- food, clothing, and shelter. Social disabilities include disabilities imposed on people based on their race, color, gender, nationality etc.

Some of the disabilities are very much visible, but there are many more that are not that visible. Mental disabilities are not as visible as the physical ones. The surface view sees only the visible disabilities, but a deeper view sees the invisible disabilities as well. The term disability in its narrow meaning refers to the visible disabilities. But in its wider meaning, it refers to all kinds of disabilities. 
There was a well-known poet in Kerala called Kunjan Nambiar. He sang that out of one hundred thousand (lakh) people there would be only one or two without any defects or disabilities.

Laksham manushar koodumbol athil
Lakshanamothavar onno rando

He was countering the popular notion that the majority are able and only a few are disabled. He turned it around and argued that the majority are disabled, and only a few are fully able without any defects or disabilities. The meaning of the term disability was limited by him to the physical disabilities. With the wider meaning of disability, that includes mental, social and economic disabilities, Kunjan Nambiar will have to modify his lines as follows: 

Laksham manushar koodumbol athil
Lakshanamothavar ille illa

There is no human being without some sort of defects or disabilities. 

It seems that Jesus Christ held the view that all people in the world are disabled. All people are disabled because God alone is perfect and free from any defects or disabilities. Christianity affirms that God alone is almighty (omnipotent), which means that God alone has all the abilities. No human being can claim to have all the possible abilities. This Christian affirmation also implies that all beings other than God receive their abilities from God. As the church fathers assert, no affirmative statement can be true about God. Thus the statement "God is almighty" does not give us an objective description of God. This Kataphatic (positive) statement must be true about all beings other than God.

If only a few people are disabled, it is natural to assume that their disability was caused by some reason specific to them. It was commonly believed in Jesus’ world that disability is a curse, and it is caused by sins. Jesus acknowledged the connection between sin and disability, but contrary to the popular notion, Jesus held that all people are sinners, and God alone is without any sins. If it is human to err, it is human to be disabled as well. In a conversation with his disciples in the context of healing a blind person, Jesus acknowledged that his blindness was not caused specifically by the sin of anyone in particular.

St. Paul speaks about the gifts of the holy spirit. If I have a certain ability, it has been given to me by the Holy spirit of God, and so I can't feel superior because of it. An ability is given to me for the common good; not just for my own good. This idea affirms that all the abilities of all the people in the world are originally from God, and no one has any ability in him/herself.

If all people are disabled, it would be senseless to classify people into disabled and able. However, since the disability of all people are not equally visible, we may classify people into visibly disabled and invisibly disabled.

The Christian Paradigm as a Solution to the Imposed Social Disability
The story of Jesus cleaning the temple at Jerusalem is meaningful in this context. Jesus expected the temple to be a house of God, but he found it to be a den of robbers. Once he had the robbers out, the people who truly belonged there came in. Matthew tells us that the blind and the lame came into the temple to the presence of Jesus. When the robbers were inside they were outside. Once the robbers were out, they could come inside the House of God. (Matthew 21:12-15) We see two different approaches and attitudes toward disabilities in this story. The blind and the lame were marginalized in that society, and Jesus brought them to the mainstream. All the disabled people were social outcasts in Jesus’ world. It was believed that they were cursed of God because of the sins committed by their forefathers. They were seen as good-for-nothing people. They were considered less human than others. They were haunted by shame, which was strong enough to make them take their own life. When someone takes away his/her own life in such a situation, it is really a murder committed by the community around him/her. Jesus’ view of disability was radically different from the popular view. The popular view of disability was very negative, dishonest, naïve, and unhealthy, and in the place of that, Jesus developed a view which is positive, honest, informed, and healthy.

This situation is very similar to our world today. We have a market economy in our world. Only those who keep on buying and selling have a place in our world. The disabled ones are looked down upon as a burden to the earth. In place of this market-like world we need a home-like world-- a world in which all people feel at home and feel cared for and  supported.

The cause of the original (natural) disabilities is not our concern here. Let us leave the question to the experts in those fields. Here we are concerned about the secondary disability-- a man-made social disability (stigma). A negative approach to the original disabilities is the cause of the secondary disability. People often see the natural disabilities as a curse. Such a negative view imposes a massive social disability on the naturally disabled people.

We may not be able to do much about the natural disabilities, but we will be able to overcome fully the man-made social stigma. The man-made stigma is caused by a misunderstanding, and it can be rooted out by the right understanding. That only a few people in the world are disabled, and the rest are fully able is a misunderstanding. That all people in the world are disabled is the right understanding.  

The understanding that God is the only one with all the abilities has the power to root out this man-made disability imposed on the disabled people. Once we realize that all people are disabled, we can be fully honest about our disabilities. We don’t need to hide our disabilities or feel shame about them. No one will look down upon others for their disabilities. We need to identify what exactly our disabilities are so that we can be very careful in situations that involve our disabilities. We also need to identify our own abilities so that we can make the maximum use of them to serve others. We can stand together as communities so that we can help each other with our disabilities. There is a well-known story of a blind man and a lame man living together. The blind man carries the lame man around. The eyes of one become useful for both and the legs of one become useful for both. Thus living together in a community, we can overcome our disabilities to a great extent.

If only a few people are disabled, they will have a parasitic relationship with the others. But if all people are disabled, all people will have a symbiotic relationship to one another. A symbiotic relationship is beneficial to both parties; a parasitic relationship is beneficial to the parasite, but harmful to the host.  

While children grow up, they need to identify their abilities and disabilities with the help of their parents, teachers and other adults. They will need help from career counselors to choose a means of living according to their abilities and disabilities. Careers need to be chosen according to their abilities and disabilities, not according to their social status or the status of the careers. They need to learn to develop symbiotic relationships in their social life.

In spite of all the inconvenience and sufferings due to our disabilities, they give us the opportunity to reach higher and evolve further in some other abilities. A disability can be the catalyst for an ability. In this sense, disabilities are not a curse but a blessing. It is up to us to make them a curse or a blessing.

A human body was the model of an ideal community for Paul. Each organ in the body has its abilities and disabilities. The eyes can see, but cannot do anything else. The ears have the ability to hear, but are disabled in every other way. We all have our abilities and disabilities. Standing alone, we are all disabled. If we stand together as a community, as organs of a body, we can move on successfully supporting one another. Community life compensates for our disabilities to a great extent.
A family was the model of an ideal community for Jesus. In a family no one is marginalized; everyone supports each other. In a den of robbers, some people are marginalized in the name of their disabilities. But in the house of God, all people are valued. Christianity began as a community of disabled people supporting one another. Eventually it became very much other-worldly and failed to provide any meaningful guidance to human life in the present world. Christianity needs to regain its original meaning and create a new meaningful foundation for a new civilization. Our world with its market economy is currently a den of robbers, where a lot of people are marginalized. It needs to become the house of God, in which we all people support and take care of one another.

The primary disabilities need to be distinguished from the secondary social disability imposed on the disabled people. The Christian paradigm that all people are disabled can effectively deal with this problem. It not only saves people from the imposed social disability but also helps them to live in communities with a symbiotic relationship overcoming even the primary disabilities to a great extent.

Creamer, Deborah. (2006). Theological Accessibility: The Contribution of Disability, Disability Studies Quarterly, Volume 26, No. 4.
Gregorios, Paulos. (1997). Love's Freedom The Grand Mystery: A Spiritual Auto-Biography. Kottayam: Mar Gregorios Foundation.

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