I’m able-bodied…for now! Demolishing disability dualisms

I’m able-bodied…for now! Demolishing disability dualisms


Hello there, and welcome to the first
video in a series that I have been planning for a long time now and I’m
super excited about. Um. It’s gonna be hard for me to not, um, flap my hands and stuff in this video just because I’ve been looking forward to making it for so long and because it combines two of my special interests: disability justice and theology, Bible stuff. Um. But yeah, the series I’m planning on doing
will hopefully fill some gaps for people when it comes to disability theology, disability inclusion in faith spaces — particularly rom a Christian lens, because that’s my own background. And yeah, I figure if you are watching this video, it might be because you have noticed in your own faith communities — or if you’re like me and study religion academically, or have tried to find books or videos or blogs on what it — what good news scripture has
for people with disabilities — you might have noticed that there are a lot of gaps. Um.
I just graduated from a seminary this past spring — I spent three years learning about how to be
inclusive of so many groups of people, how to be radically welcoming and to not
only serve people of various marginalized groups, but also to be served by them, to do what we can to make everyone welcome at a table where everyone is an equal partner. And in those three years, we hardly talked about disabled people at all! Yeah, we learned basically nothing
about disabled people.
It was sometimes sort of mentioned in passing. And this was going on while there were
disabled students sitting in class; I would be very surprised if none of my
professors had some sort of disability; and while statistics show that somewhere around like
one in five or even one in four people
in the United States has a disability. And so I’m really hoping that the series will bring some of the material that I sought out on my own — such as these two books behind me; I read these for an independent study project, and many other books that I had to buy because the seminary library didn’t have them, and I had to study on my own because classes weren’t teaching them to me… So I was able to afford these books, and that’s a privilege; I have the time to read books like this,
that’s a privilege that not everyone has. I also have the academic knowledge to
understand and interpret them, which not everyone has access to
for various reasons. So my hope with these videos is that I can make
some of this knowledge more accessible
and easy to understand. I decided to start with this video, which is about the fact that I myself am an able-bodied person
because — um — for several reasons, one being that the fact that I am currently
able-bodied means that my personal experience and interpretation of the
world is limited. I’m talking about disability, including physical
disabilities, without having a physical disability of my own. That means there might be things I get wrong sometimes, and I’m open to correction. Um. I also, though, wanted to start
with this idea that I am able-bodied for now because I think a lot of us, until we start studying it, don’t realize that the concept of disability
varies across different cultures and across different eras of time.
So in in this time and space I am currently able-bodied — that could
change any day. I could get into some sort of accident,
or have an illness that makes me disabled,
that gives me a physical disability. Any of us can have that — there are some people in the disability community who, instead of saying that people are able-bodied, will say that they are temporarily able-bodied —
because if we live long enough, all of us will eventually develop
some sort of disability. Like I mentioned a moment ago, there are
cultural differences in what counts as a disability. I am able-bodied for my time and place, but as you can see, I have glasses; I have
impaired vision, and in some times and places one might consider that a disability —
if glasses did not exist, I would not be able to see very far.
I might have suffered in school without glasses to help me see the chalkboard. Um…
I would not be able to drive without glasses being invented. Uh, my life would be significantly disabled
because public spaces in my society are not made for
people with impaired vision. These glasses, um, which have become so common in, what, the last dec — few decades, the last century or so, allow me to say I am able-bodied —
despite the fact that I have impaired vision. I also am able-bodied for now,
but I am also autistic, which means that the way my
brain is wired is different from the brain, um, the neurotype that is considered
normative in my society, in my culture. And so a lot of public spaces and social
spaces were not made for people like me. And so there are ways that my autism
disables me — or that society’s failure to make spaces accessible
to autistic people disables me. So that’s wha–that’s why I wanted to start with this idea,
because I think until each of us realizes that disability isn’t something as inherent or obvious as we might think it is, it becomes really hard to understand disability in our own time and place but also in biblical times and places. So…yeah. One of the main goals of
this very first video is to talk a little bit about what disability may have meant to
the cultures we find in the Bible and some of their neighboring cultures as
well. So, I don’t know about you but before I
started studying all of this, my assumption for disability across time
would be that the further back in time you go, the less acceptance of disability
you would find — that once you get to really ancient, like, prehistoric
societies, you’re going to find that communities would exile any disabled
infant or anyone who became too disabled to be “productive,” to help the society. And part of, I think, why I believe that is because to an extent that’s what we find
in our own society — or at least in my society, in the United States.
We find that disabled people are stigmatized; they find it much harder to find jobs,
for those who want a job, and if they don’t want a job or cannot have a job
they find it very difficult to get the government assistance they need in order
to survive without a job. We find that…we have all these assumptions
that disabled people are less productive, less fruitful, less happy than abled people.
And if our society, which is “so modern,” believes that and makes it really hard for some
disabled people to have access to our public spaces and programs and social spaces,
then of course those prehistoric, “primitive” communities must have been even worse.
But actually, when you study the ancient past you often find that the
opposite is true! Of course in different cultures — it depends — there are plenty of cultures in the past where it is true that disabled people were not treated
any better, or else were treated worse
than they are today; but there are also many instances in which
communities made space for their disabled members. I want to stick to Southwest Asia, aka the Middle East, because that’s where the Bible takes place
and where it was written… So I will start with a non-biblical example that archaeologists found in the 1900s
of a disabled person who lived
some 35,000 to 45,000 years ago in Iraq, in Shanidar — sorry if I’m mispronouncing that — but he is the first of several
prehistoric bodies, Neanderthal bodies, that archaeologists found
in Shanidar, Iraq. And he is known as Nandy to the ones
who excavated him, which i think is really cute! So Nandy, the archaeologists found, had a
cranial injury on the left side of his head. When he was very young
Nandy experienced a crushing blow to his head that would have damaged his left eye, potentially blinded his left eye, and also damaged the part of his brain that
controlled the right side of his body. So he had a withered right arm,
he possibly had a limp in his right leg; He very likely experienced chronic pain for
the rest of his life. And that’s the thing! Nandy, with this childhood or teenagehood
cranial injury, lived to be at least 35 years old, and potentially 45 years old!
It is clear that his society did not abandon, abandon him once he sustained these injuries.
In fact, whatever surgical or medical abilities they had,
they poured it all into helping Nandy survive! His survival was important enough to
them that they took the time to help him heal. And after he healed as much as he
was going to, he lived for several more decades. We don’t know what role he had
in his community, but it’s clear that whether or not he did anything
productive or useful in his community that they loved him.
35,000 years ago, this man was loved
and protected by his people. And so to me, learning stories like that from these ancient communities reminds
me not only that disabled people in every time and place have inherent value, and that they are parts
of the community — they aren’t objects of our pity
or our help but also agents in their own right, they are members in their own right just
as much as any of us, and that was true 35,000 years ago
and it should be true today. So we don’t know what Nandy’s role was
in his own society, whether he
was a storyteller or if he helped watch children, or had a specialized skill or
simply was just a beloved member as he was. But we do have some textual evidence
from from various texts found in Mesopotamia that some of ancient Israel’s neighbors
often found ways to incorporate people with various
disabilities into their social structure. For example, there is an ancient Sumerian
myth that says that disable — that disabilities originated
in a divine contest. There’s a birth goddess named Ninmah, and she challenged Enki, who is the god of mischief and wisdom, to find a job for each of the disabled people
that she formed. So Ninmah created a man who could not see, and Enki said, “Cool, this blind guy can be a musician, he doesn’t need his eyes for that!” Ninmah created an infertile woman,
who in her society would have been considered disabled, and Enki said,
“Cool, this woman can be infertile and still be a wonderful weaver for the
queen.” And so she gets a job in the royal court. Ninmah creates a man with paralyzed
feet, and Enki makes him a silversmith. And so on. Um. So it’s this story of — it’s
this story that is a little problematic in that it’s sort of this idea that disabilities are part of what, a divine sort of game. But for the people in that
society who had a disability, it meant that they could find a place in society
where their skills were valued and needed, instead of always being sort of
shoved to the fringes of their si — of their society. A third millennium BCE list
from a Sumerian temple shows that that temple employed a lot of various
disabled people at it. And so we can see that it was it was possible and not
unheard of for people with disabilities to participate as equals in an ancient
society. And yet, in Israel, according to the Bible and some some other texts that
were also written at the same time as the Bible — which spans like two thousand years;
when I say “the Bible” as if it’s one text, it’s really by multiple authors
across a good 2,000 years or more — we have stories such as the ones in
our New Testament, in the Gospels, in which the blind characters, the physically disabled characters, the lepers are on the outskirts of society,
they are beggars in need of assistance. They’re not usually — they are people in desperate need
of being “fixed” or “healed” by Jesus rather than going about their lives as they are,
with the accommodations brought for them that they need in order to thrive in
their societies. Or back in the Hebrew Bible — the so called Old Testament — we have passages
such as Leviticus 21:16-23, in which we are told that priests had
to be physically perfect, physically and mentally perfect, that they could not have
any sort of deformity or anything that we nowadays would call a disability. And we have to think, what makes a society more or less open to the idea that disabled people can and should
participate in their societies equally? What it what is the difference in ideology? So yeah, that’s the plan of the rest of this series, is to go through the Bible and look at passages that somehow deal with disability and see sort of the
fact that there are multiple voices in the Bible, because it was written over a large number of millennia by different people in different sort of life situations. Um.
It means that there are passages in scripture that seem to have bad news for disabled people, the idea that it’s a mistake, it’s bad luck, or that it means that God cursed you, that there was a sin in your family
that made you be disabled, that there’s no place for you in the faith community,
or a limited place for you — that’s one voice in Scripture, but there
are other voices in Scripture that say that no, actually, if you are disabled it
could be that God intended for you to be disabled for one reason or another, that
you are good as you are, that you are holy as you are, that you are whole as you are and
you are welcomed by God into the faith community. That you can be not just a recipient of divine blessing but also an agent of divine blessing,
someone who goes out and serves others. Those voices exist in Scripture too — those
stories exist too — and so that’s the hope for this video series, is that we can see that it’s a nuanced discussion when we talk about what the Bible “says” about
disabilities and people with disabilities and how communities should
respond, react to disabilities. And so that’s where this series is going,
but we’re not there yet! I just wanted to sort of lay the groundwork by offering
some examples of how the conception of disability is itself variable; it’s not set in stone.
And one more thing I did want to talk about is — I keep using language like
“we” and “they,” um. And that’s something that I really personally need
to keep thinking about, and I hope that y’all can think about too. And if you
have thoughts on it let me know! This idea that there is a “we” and a “they,” an “us versus them,” is itself a falsehood. That’s the biggest dualism of all that we need to break down: not only the idea that disability as a concept varies across
cultures and ages, but also that there is no us versus them. We are all part of the same communities and so, that’s another bit of food for thought, is the idea that
there is no us vs. them. And so in order to end with that idea that there is no
us versus them and that disability is in many ways a construct, and there are many different ways of interpreting disability, and that people with disabilities have different ideas about what it means to be disabled —
there might be one disabled person who would love for it to be fixed or cured
in some way, that feels like they are missing out on something because of
their disability; there might be another disabled person who says, “no,
there’s nothing wrong with me! It’s society that causes me to be disabled, and if society would just provide the accommodations I deserve, I would not have any sort of disability,
I would be enabled.” There’s so many different
nuanced opinions across time and space but also within the same community.
So that’s just something that I personally want to think about, and I hope you’ll
think about too. And there’s a quote, a passage from a book I read called
The Enabled Life: Christianity in a Disabling World, by Roy McCloughry, that really drives this idea that we are interconnected
and there is no us-versus-them home. So that’s what I’ll close with. “A woman who is a wheelchair user is accustomed to others treating her as if she’s only half there.
People often talk over her head to the person pushing her wheelchair. Then one
day, she breaks her leg. She’s still in her wheelchair but now has her leg very
visibly in a plaster. Everything changes. People now assume that she is a ‘normal’
person who has broken her leg and will be walking again soon. They treat her
entirely differently. She is one of ‘us.’ They talk to her and treat her as a
real person. After a few weeks the plaster comes off, and within days she
returns to her previous experience of being overlooked. She is one of ‘them.’ We
live between two worlds. We see competition, ambition, and autonomy as
characteristic of the world of success. On the other hand, we see disability
poverty and powerlessness as signs of a world haunted by endemic failure. We
assume that the world of success has nothing to learn from the world of
failure; it is best not to have anything to do with it. Of course the media
presents us with harrowing pictures of the other world, but we are well
practiced voyeurs who do not engage easily. We are like tourists who have
paid good money to go on a guided tour of a shanty town but who are more
concerned with taking photographs of people than relating to them. These two
worlds, far from running in parallel, are closely intertwined. If I believe that
who I am depends on what I have achieved I am unlikely to value the life of
someone with an intellectual impairment. I can live my life without that person.
To break this deadlock takes courage; it can only be done by realising that there
is no us and them; there has only ever been us. We are not doing things to other
people, nor are we doing things for other people; we can only do things with other
people.” I hope that I’ve given you enough food for thought to
sort of look at your own communities –
faith communities, friend communities, school, work, so on —
look around at your communities and think about where you see people
with various disabilities finding what they need in order to have access to those spaces, and to be equal partners in those spaces, and what is lacking, what is
missing and why. What’s the ideology behind that?
What are we saying, explicitly or implicitly, about disabled people when
we make access or don’t make access? That’s it for this video!
I will see you all next time!

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