Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Calder, Andy and Christopher Newell. (Eds.) Voices in Disability and Spirituality from the Land Down Under: Outback to Outfront. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, 2004. 170 pages, $19.95, Paper 0-7890-2608-2.

Reviewed by Jay Dolmage, Miami University of Ohio

Recent work in the field of disability studies has focused on the body as constructed, performed, as moored in normate discourses, as abstracted by theory, as engaged in struggle, in art. A productive tension has been generated out of this thinking through, around, and upon the body. Voices in Disability and Spirituality from the Land Down Under might be seen as leading a different, though connected trend in disability studies, centered on the spirit. Andy Calder, a hospital chaplain, and Christopher Newell, a bioethics scholar, set out to validate and enable the spirit of disability—not the stereotypical pluck of the overcoming cripple, not the self-loathing of the villain, but a re-claimed and re-written spirituality.

The authors collected in this book write toward an affirmation of the spirituality of people with disabilities, often in the face of barriers imposed by a variety of religious practices and traditions. Much of the writing challenges and critiques religious discourse that many in the field of disability studies are familiar with and wary of: the idea that people with disabilities need to be healed and cured; that people with disabilities are symbols of original sin, of evil; that religious institutions must be charitable towards the less fortunate; that suffering is a trial of obedience; finally, that disability disqualifies one from even practicing religion—that religion is practiced on the disabled, not by people with disabilities.

A unique perspective on the physical boundaries to religion is also offered, and always this spatial exclusion is linked to ideology, as when Lyn Dowling writes about the "structural grief" created when people with disabilities face barriers. This grief is transcended when these barriers are removed, "free[ing] emotional space" in the community (p.113).

The essays in the collection also initiate a conversation about an alternative theology, and even an alternative epistemology of disability. Calder and Newell suggest a version of spirituality that figures a moral "fall" as fortunate, leading to an understanding of innate human imperfection. Calder suggests that commonplace religious assumptions can be re-read and re-framed from a disability perspective. For instance, we might apply a doctrine of "healing" to the disabling environment, rather than to bodies with disabilities (p.7). The morality of interdependence is interrogated by Lorna Hallahan, who suggests that any notion of community must begin with the acknowledgment that some people have been left behind. She asks her readers to think about how disability will enrich the process of communing (p.33). Peter W. Hawkins explains that the Buddhist concept of Sutra, or "interbeing" might allow people with disabilities to lead others towards a non-hierarchical valuation of human life (p.53). Melinda Jones describes the Jewish law of Halacha as a mandate for inclusion. In an essay that mixes poetry and personal anecdote, Elizabeth Mosely writes that "we [people with disabilities] have much to offer. Major life changes mean major re-assessment of priorities and values. The secular gives way to the intensely spiritual" (p.122). This intense spirituality is not just inclusive of disability, it is shaped by it.

Certainly, the struggle to create physical and ideological space for (and with) one's spirituality has been a common experience in the disability community, and may be a part of the spiritual "journey" of all citizens. This collection, published concurrently as a special double issue of the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, should be read as a sort of primer on the discourse of disability in religion. Though many of these essays do have a particular medical backdrop, or speak to issues in health and medicine, the book is primarily a collection of voices talking back to religious ideologies and institutions from a disability perspective. Methodology varies—the book contains case studies, discourse analysis, history, poetry—yet finally, regardless of the method, the message is that no religious community, practice or theology is "whole" while disability is excluded.

This is not just a collection for those who "practice" religion. The authors suggest that all of culture is tightly fused with spirituality. When disability is recognized, we see new possibilities for a spirited critique and a new theology of inclusion. Just as a focus on the body has led to a generative tension in our field, a focus on spirituality provides new, intense ways of thinking about community, agency, the material and the social from a disability perspective.

For Further Reading:

Hasan Amin, Betty. (2000 December) "Hajj in a Wheelchair." Azizah Magazine.

Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville,TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Lane, N. J. (1993 September/October). "Healing of bodies and victimization of persons: Issues of faith-healing for persons with disabilities." The Disability Rag ReSource. 11-13.

McNair, J. (2000) "The local church as a network supporting adults with disabilities in the community: One perspective."  Journal of Religion, Disability and Health 4.1, 33-56.

"Special Issue: Disability and Spirituality." Journal of Rehabilitation 67.1 (2001).

Wink, W. (1993)."Holy and Without Blemish Before God: Disability and Normalcy." Auburn News 1.1.

Access to Bibles and other sacred writings in alternative formats: