Disconnect, Not Disability

January 28th, 2012

The way we talk about difference and disability is a sensitive and complex area. Language has changed in recent years to reflect the idea that a disability isn’t within someone; rather, it’s where there is a disconnect happening between that person and his context. He may have something physical or cognitive that didn’t develop typically, often called an impairment or an atypical development. But that only becomes a disability when the context he’s in says he doesn’t match up “right.”

Take an everyday example: There’s a paper towel dispenser in a public restroom made for someone who can reach six feet off the floor. As long as you can reach it, you have the ability to get the paper towel. Yet for someone shorter or in a wheelchair, a dispenser at that height might produce an inability, not so much because of the person but because of the placement of the dispenser. If the dispenser is placed lower, then there is no disconnect between the person in a wheelchair and the paper towel—hence, no “inability.” The inability to reach has become an ability to reach.

How well we function is a product of what’s available to us to meet our needs in our environment—even if it’s just a paper towel. Yet when we look at it this way, what might seem like a minor adjustment in terminology actually ends up making a huge difference. To see the question of ability as linked to the space we’re in doesn’t let us pin the question of difference—and, thus, the fear that often comes with it—on the person with the difference or disability. Instead, those questions become about us. Or in biblical terms, as Jesus interacted with the blind man who then washed himself in the pool of Siloam, the sin is not in the person; sin is in how the world responds (John 9:1–7).

This applies to all of us. Think of the things such as supports, services, and networks that we’ve each needed to function, whether it was psychological or logistical support for something difficult or even debilitating. Think of the things and places inside of us that always seem disabled, atypical, or out of sync. It could be something as mundane as using reading glasses or learning another language, or something as extensive as regular therapy and support groups for an addiction, or a machine that helps someone who doesn’t have use of her hands to type. As we reflect on our lives in light of a broadened understanding of disability, our insights can extend to wounds we bear from our childhoods or other experiences that have caused us to need support and services to function effectively in the world. We all have those kinds of places inside of us. And we’ve probably all had occasions when other people were patient with and forgiving of our limitations, which lay right alongside our strengths.

As the saying goes, “We create ability by masking disability, and we create disability by masking ability.”

To hold up the universal human condition of brokenness and need is not to trivialize disabilities that are more marked and that create more atypical challenges to get through life. But it is to broaden the theological circle to include all of us. And it affects, in turn, how we interact with and receive the ministry of people with more overt differences and disabilities. As the twentieth-century theologian Jurgan Moltmann wrote in The Power of the Powerless: “In actual fact, the distinction between the healthy and the handicapped does not exist. For every human life is limited, vulnerable, and weak. Helpless we are born and helpless we die. So in reality there is no such thing as a handicapped life. It is only the idea of health set up by the society of the capable which condemns a certain group of people to be called ‘handicapped.’”


This excerpt is from the book Child by Child: Supporting Children with Learning Differences and Their Families order information appears at the bottom of the page, from the chapter "Believe: The Theology of Difference and Disability."

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