Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Theological Accessibility: The Contribution of Disability

Deborah Creamer, Ph.D.
Iliff School of Theology, Denver, CO
E-mail: dcreamer@iliff.edu

Abstract: Religious institutions and communities that have embraced the cause of disability have invested a great deal of energy in struggles against architectural barriers, including the elevated pulpit. Valuing this engagement but also recognizing that access to physical space is only a first step in a project of accessibility, this paper claims that it is time to open the entire breadth of religious traditions to an "accessibility audit." Not only does such an examination highlight potential barriers — challenges of scripture and metaphor, for example — but it also suggests new theological possibilities in which disability is not simply a consumer or an evaluator of tradition but rather a constructive element that offers new options for theological reflection. This paper briefly reviews the disability theology models that have been offered to date (the Accessible God by Jennie Weiss Block, the Inclusive God by Kathy Black, and the Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland), highlighting ways in which these proposals make significant contributions to the breadth and depth of Christian theological reflection. This analysis shows that the value of disability theology is confined neither to people with disabilities nor to the arena of religion, but rather, as has been the case with other liberation theologies, has the potential to affect wider worlds and fields of study as well.

Theological Accessibility: The Contribution of Disability

I am a scholar of religion, and I am a scholar of disability studies. This makes me somewhat of a novelty in both of my academic homes. As is probably not surprising to readers of this journal, many religious organizations and institutions have been slow to embrace issues of disability, in part due to legal exemptions from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus much of my professional energy is devoted to explaining to those within the world of religious studies (clergy, practitioners, scholars, and students) why disability should matter, and in fact must matter to them (us). What is perhaps more surprising, though, is that I am also necessarily drawn to the opposite cause, explaining to those within the world of disability studies why religion should matter, and in fact must matter to them (us). As religious organizations gain competence in and commitment to basic issues of accessibility, it is time now for the discourse of disability studies to challenge these sites to a deeper level of accessibility, an accessibility that goes far beyond ramps. At the same time, it is my argument that there is great potential for such conversation to be mutually beneficial, allowing for growth and new insights for both of our fields of study and ways of life.

A Problematic Avoidance: Ignoring Disability

The church has often been unhelpful, and even harmful, as it has related to people with disabilities. Nancy Eiseland writes, "The persistent thread within the Christian tradition has been that disability denotes an unusual relationship with God and that the person with disabilities is either divinely blessed or damned" and points out that, as is true for any such characterization, "neither represents the ordinary lives and lived realities of most people with disabilities" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 70-71). When disabilities have been considered at all, they have historically been looked at as symbols of sin (to be avoided), images of saintliness (to be admired), signs of God's limited power or capriciousness (to be pondered), or suffering personified (to be pitied) — very rarely were people with disabilities considered first as people. Consideration of disability has often fallen solely under the realm of pastoral care (how do we take care of people with disabilities, support their families, and address issues of suffering and healing), but, for the most part, disability has been neglected by the academic study of religion as well as by the daily life of religious communities.

The last 20 or so years have seen significant changes, as a variety of factors have converged to give many churches and other religious communities the nudge they need to take seriously the presence (and, too often, absence) of people with disabilities. Yet even today, people with disabilities are frequently excluded from religious services by barriers of architecture and attitude. Even when congregations have worked to make their sanctuaries accessible, it is not uncommon to find areas such as the pulpit, altar, choir loft, or youth room that still possess significant barriers. Pastors and worship leaders still perpetuate unrealistic images of people with disabilities as pitiful or inspirational, and language offensive to people with disabilities is used uncritically, leading to what Brett Webb-Mitchell calls "the betrayal of people with disabilities" (Webb-Mitchell, 1994). While many people with disabilities have found welcome in religious communities, others still wait outside the gates.

While valuing the engagement that religious communities have made so far in relation to issues of accessibility, it is also important to recognize that access to the physical and conversational space of worship is only a first step in a project of accessibility. It is good to "first do no harm," but this must not be the only step toward full inclusion. It is my claim that taking disability seriously means opening the entire breadth of the tradition to an "accessibility audit." Not only does such an examination highlight potential barriers — challenges of scripture and metaphor, for example — but it also suggests new theological possibilities in which disability is not simply a consumer or an evaluator of tradition but rather a constructive element that offers new options for theological reflection. In other words, analysis from the perspective(s) of disability not only offers corrective guidelines to established theologies but also itself raises new theological possibilities. There is much to examine, and much to be gained. This means that it is time for religion to attend seriously to the insights of disability.

Another Problematic Avoidance: Ignoring Religion

Just as religion has tended to ignore disability altogether or to address disability only at basic levels of access, the field of disability studies has paid scarce attention to religion or religious communities, and has rarely looked beyond their problematic aspects. In fact, it may even come as a surprise to readers of this journal that there even are people who are working within the disciplines of religious studies and theology to thoughtfully engage issues of disability. It seems as if exploration of religion is considered to be unimportant, uninteresting, or unapproachable to those within disability studies. A superlative example of this is seen in the 2001 Handbook of Disability Studies. In the introduction to this work, the editors state, "while one book cannot include every theory and perspective, a serious attempt was made to reflect the diversity and depth of disability studies in this volume" (Albrecht, Seelman, & Bury, 2001, p. 5). Given this claim, it is surprising that, in the more than seven hundred pages that follow, religion is barely mentioned, and then only in relation to the history of institutionalization. There is no discussion, even in footnotes, of attention to disability within the disciplines of theology or religious studies, or of any contributions these fields might make to disability studies. Also lacking is any mention of how people with disabilities are present in (or absent from) religious institutions, which is surprising since the volume surveys a wide spectrum of other institutional and communal aspects of disabled life. Religion is only examined as a historical influence, with no attention (in this text and most others) to contemporary religious issues or communities, no mention of God, and no consideration that theological reflection might have a contribution as one of the intellectual forces that might influence the field of disability studies.

This avoidance of religion is problematic at a number of levels. For example, it ignores the fact that religion is a significant facet of the lives of many people with disabilities, as Nancy Eiesland describes in this way:

For a long time, I experienced a significant rift between my activism and my faith. My activism filled me with a passion for social change that would acknowledge our full value as human beings. But my theological and spiritual questions remained unanswered: What is the meaning of my disability? The movement offered me opportunities to work for change that were unavailable in the church, but my faith gave a spiritual fulfillment that I could not find in the movement (Eiesland, 2002, p. 13).

The silence of disability studies on issues of religious significance distances the field from the real life values and commitments of many people with disabilities, ignoring for example that God may have meaning (whether positive, negative, or ambiguous) in the lives of many people with disabilities. By failing to address these issues of significance in the lives of the people it speaks for and with, disability studies falls short of its own commitments to inclusivity and relevance. Additionally, it is my argument that this silence has problematic implications for the stability of the field itself. I believe that it is important for disability studies to attend to images of God for two crucial reasons. First, given the nature of religious belief, destructive notions of God will most likely persist if left unchallenged and will have the potential to sabotage the progress of other aspects of the disability movement. Second, with appropriate reconstruction, alternative images of God have the potential to make significant contributions to ongoing processes of resymbolization and reinterpretation of the experience(s) of disability, an undertaking that is vital for the future of the field. Disability scholars ought to be concerned with religion, not just because churches are or can be oppressive institutions, but also because personal and societal understandings of disability are saturated with meaning, including religious meaning.

What God for Disability?

Most scholarship on religion and disability has focused on questions of access for people with disabilities, in areas such as worship, theological education, and ordination (see Webb-Mitchell, 1998; Anderson, 2004; and Herzog, 1998). While this work is extremely important, it cannot be fully effective unless attention is also paid to complete theological systems, including conceptions or images of God that affirm experiences of disability. While a new generation of scholars is beginning to explore alternative framings for disability theology (see Creamer, 2004), three innovative images of God can already be found within the literature of disability and religion: the Accessible God, proposed by Jennie Weiss Block; the Interdependent God, proposed by Kathy Black; and the Disabled God, proposed by Nancy Eiesland.

The Accessible God

Jennie Weiss Block is a disability professional with an interest in theological metaphors for disability. She does not identify herself as a person with a disability but rather calls herself a "secondary consumer" in that she has a family member with multiple disabilities. In the book Copious Hosting she proposes what she calls "a theology of access," the goal of which is to ensure "that people with disabilities take their rightful place within the Christian community" (Block, 2002, p. 11). This theology of access is specifically grounded in her belief that people with disabilities are a unique group not because they are in any way inferior to nondisabled people but rather because they are oppressed by society. Because she believes that Christian communities have an obligation to challenge oppressive structures, she calls for church communities to make changes that lead to full access and inclusion for people with disabilities.

Block sees the lens of access and inclusion as a useful one through which to examine images of God. What does disability tell us about God? For Block, the answer is that disability is related to "the mystery of God's love and the great paradoxes of the Christian message" (p. 22). In particular, from her Roman Catholic background, she writes, "disability is a dramatic reminder that God's ways are not our ways" (p. 91). While God cannot be fully known, she argues that the lens of disability highlights a God who is unfailingly committed to inclusion and access. She argues that "the mandate for access and inclusion is biblically based, central to our baptismal promise and commitment, and rooted in the Triune God" (p. 22). This, she says, was the message of Jesus: all are welcome, and all have a place. According to Block, the New Testament account shows that Jesus included all people in his ministry, regardless of nationality, gender, background, or physical condition. For her, these stories of Jesus tell us what God is like, and what we are to be like as well. She explains: "Why a theology of access? Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of access; creating access for those on the margins is a Christian mandate" (p. 120).

Block's proposal highlights disability as an issue of oppressive structures and exclusion. Because of this, the Accessible God not only offers us images of inclusion but also calls for an end to oppressive structures. Block explains that this image:

demands we search our community with truth and face the serious reality that some of the people of God have been systematically denied access to the community... [and] demands that we admit that our own attitudes and actions have excluded people. It forces us to ask difficult questions. How can we become more inclusive? What actions do we need to take? What skills do we need? How must we change to make this gospel demand a reality in our communities? Becoming inclusive is a complex, demanding task that asks more of us than we are probably willing to give. It requires the traits of patience and vigilance that are in short supply in our fast-paced, outcome-oriented world. And yet, we cannot be faithful to our Christian vocation if we are not serious about the Christian mandate for inclusion (pp. 122-123).

Based on her experiences as a disability professional and secondary consumer, Block argues that a theology of access demands the participation of people with disabilities in decisions that affect their lives. This concrete level of inclusion is the practical goal of her theological reflections. For example, she tells of a chapel that underwent extensive remodeling to become accessible to people with disabilities, but the designers failed to consult anyone who actually uses a wheelchair — the unfortunate result being that the "accessible" chapel doesn't allow for the turn radius of a wheelchair. She uses this story to suggest that it is not only a practical error to exclude people with disabilities from decisions that concern them but that it is also a theological error. Those involved in making decisions about the remodeling were not following the gospel mandate of inclusion, and were not acting in a way that is consistent with her understanding of the Accessible God. Thus Block is not only concerned with the image of God itself but also with the actions and responsibilities that such an image demands.

The Interdependent God

Kathy Black is a professor of homiletics who identifies herself as a person with a physical disability and who has worked for many years in Deaf ministry. Her interest is in the intersection of Deafness and homiletics, based on her experiences of "the Word made flesh" as a hearing person who preaches and teaches in sign language (Black, 1991). In A Healing Homiletic she proposes what she calls a "theology of interdependence," which emphasizes her understanding of Christian community as a place where all are called to "work interdependently with God to achieve well-being for ourselves and others" (Black, 1996, pp. 37-38). She begins with the idea that disability is part of the everyday existence of millions of people and their loved ones. She believes that this has profound implications for theology if one rejects the notion that God causes disability.

Black rejects the idea of God as the great puppeteer, one who determines (or at least purposefully allows) both natural disasters and personal crises. She suggests that this conception would place God "in the position of being responsible for nuclear accidents, wars, rape, the hole in the ozone layer, homelessness, famine, toxic waste dumps, and earthquakes, as well as disability," consequences which she finds unacceptable (p. 34). Her argument is that God is not a great puppeteer, but rather that human choice is one among many factors that determine our lives. Noting, for example, that causes for disability include genetic and environmental influence, she argues that "we are all interconnected and interdependent upon one another so that what we do affects the lives of others and the earth itself" (p. 34). For Black, the stories of Jesus, especially the story of the resurrection, emphasize this connection. God is present in the midst of life and in the midst of suffering, offering possibilities for transformation. She argues that "the universe is interdependent, and God is a part of this interdependence" (p. 37). Thus she takes phrases such as "the family of God," "communion of the saints," and "Body of Christ" to directly represent people who are interdependent upon one another and upon God, not only in times of crisis, but on a regular basis as well.

For Black, awareness of interdependence is a contribution that can be made from the lens of disability. She notes that most people with disabilities have an enhanced awareness that they are dependent upon someone or something, whether a sign language interpreter, a guide dog for blind people, or a wheelchair. People with disabilities are conscious of this dependence, which in turn also allows us to also recognize that no one is totally independent. The experience of disability allows us to see what is often invisible to others: all people, disabled or not, are dependent on other people and on the resources of the natural world for survival. Black notes that this is a particularly difficult awareness within the context of American culture, which accentuates independence and sees dependence as something to be avoided. Black sees Christian communities as one place "where people can be accepted for who they are as children of God, the place where dependency is acknowledged and interdependency is valued" (pp. 41-42). Disability is a window into this insight. However, the Interdependent God is not only of or for people with disabilities, but rather is inclusive of and interdependent with all.

The Interdependent God is not a puppeteer, but instead, just as a dear friend might do, "whenever we struggle in life, God sits beside us and helps us cry" (p. 186). And perhaps when God struggles we are to cry as well. Black suggests that the Interdependent God is with us and teaches us to be with each other, acknowledging interconnection and valuing community, depending on each other for life.

The Disabled God

The most powerful discussion of God to arise from within disability studies comes from Nancy Eiesland's proposal of the Disabled God, in the book by the same title (Eiesland, 1994). Eiesland identifies herself as "a woman with disabilities, a sociologist of religion, and a professor at a seminary in the United States" (Eiesland, 1998a, p. 103). These three elements come together in her theology, which centers on what she calls "the mixed blessing of the body," especially as these relate to the lived experience of disability. From her sociological perspective, she is especially interested in theories and methods that empower and provide a foundation for political action. She uses the image of the Disabled God to support such political action, particularly through processes of resymbolization. She is also interested in deconstructing notions of normalcy. She writes: "My own body composed as it is of metal and plastic, as well as bone and flesh, is my starting point for talking about 'bones and braces bodies' as a norm of embodiment" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 22). Her proposal is a model of God that makes sense of her "normal" experience of embodiment, as well as one that supports and participates in the struggle for liberation of all people with disabilities.

Eiesland argues that traditional images of God, especially those that lead to views of disability as either a blessing or a curse, are inadequate. Within her own experience, she wondered whether such a God could even understand disability, let alone be meaningful to her. While working at a rehabilitation hospital, she asked the residents one day what they thought.

After a long silence, a young African-American man said, "If God was in a sip-puff, maybe He would understand." I was overwhelmed by this image: God in a sip-puff wheelchair, the kind used by many quadriplegics that enables them to maneuver the chair by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. This was an image of God as a survivor, as one of those whom society would label "not feasible," "unemployable," with "questionable quality of life" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 13).

Eiesland made a connection between this image and the resurrection story in which Jesus appears to his followers and reveals his injured hands and feet (Luke 24:36-39). She notes "This wasn't exactly God in a sip-puff, but here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are — disabled and divine. In this passage, I recognized a part of my hidden history as a Christian" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 14). Eiesland suggests that Jesus reveals the Disabled God, and shows that divinity (as well as humanity) is fully compatible with experiences of disability. The imago Dei includes pierced hands and feet and side. According to Eiesland, this Disabled God is part of the "hidden history" of Christianity, because seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. As Rebecca Chopp notes in the introduction to this work, "The most astonishing fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 11).

Like Block, Eiesland relies on the social model of disability, so that the relevance of the Disabled God is grounded in God's ability to be in solidarity with those who are oppressed. The image also opens the door to the theological task of re-thinking Christian symbols, metaphors, rituals, and doctrines so as to make them accessible to people with disabilities. Eiesland's liberatory theology of disability comes from the perspective of people with disabilities and addresses people with disabilities as its central concern. She argues that this is essential, not only for reasons of justice and inclusion, but also because she believes that people with disabilities are most aware of their bodies and thus best suited to reflect theologically on issues of embodiment. For Eiesland, people who have experienced disability have an epistemological privilege: they see things that are invisible to others. As a result, any theology of disability must be done not only for, but also by, people with disabilities.

Eiesland's image of God has specific characteristics. First, the Disabled God rejects the notion that disability is in any way a consequence of individual sin. She sees the scars of Jesus as verifying this claim: Jesus did not sin, yet became disabled. The invitation to touch Jesus' hands and side shows that taboos against disability are to be rejected, and that shallow expressions of sympathy and pity are inappropriate. The Disabled God provides an impetus for transformation and liberation in the lives of people with disabilities, just as the resurrection of Jesus provides an impetus for transformation and liberation in the world. The stories of the crucifixion and resurrection also lead Eiesland to reject the notion that God has absolute power; she argues instead that God is in solidarity with people with disabilities and others who are oppressed. This is a God who has experienced and understands pain and rejection. Eiesland suggests that the Disabled God emphasizes relationality over hierarchy, values embodiment in all its diversity, and provides a profound example of inclusion, love, and acceptance. As Eiesland summarizes: "A liberatory theology sustains our difficult but ordinary lives, empowers and collaborates with individuals and groups of people with disabilities who struggle for justice in concrete situations, creates new ways of resisting the theological symbols that exclude and devalue us, and reclaims our hidden history in the presence of God on earth" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 86).

The Importance of Disability Theology

The models presented by Black, Block, and Eiesland offer powerful additions or alternatives to traditional images of God. Each demonstrates that the idea of God is not incompatible with disability, and, moreover, shows that it is possible to argue that God is for or on the side of people with disabilities. Such models help explain to churches why they must attend to issues of justice, sending clear and unequivocal messages about the intrinsic value of people with disabilities. We are not a problem; we are of God. You do not include me as a favor to me, but rather because I am part of the goodness of creation. The memorable image of the Disabled God, as one who intimately knows and even experiences disability, is especially important: in addition to calling for change, it irrevocably changes the way one encounters the Christian story. How can one be a Christian and not value experiences of disability? The image necessarily leads to changes in understanding and in action. As Eiesland remarks, "New religious images, values, and ideas about disability are essential as we seek to live our ordinary lives. Without them the barriers that people with disabilities encounter, while they may occasionally be lowered, will never be demolished" (Eiesland, 1998a, p. 28). Just as traditional religious imagery is found in all aspects of our worlds, these new images also have the potential to effect real change, within and beyond church communities.

In addition to calling us to real action, all three of these models refute the notion that the religious practices and interpretations of the able-bodied are the only relevant perspectives. This is reminiscent of James Cone arguing for the Black Jesus (Cone, 1997), or of early feminist discussions of God (c.f. Daly, 1985). And, just as feminism and black liberationist thought has shown us, challenges that are made to the content and methodology of theology (what we say and who may say it) can profoundly influence other aspects of the movement. Religious images are not only relevant in religious settings. Models such as the ones presented in this paper demonstrate that disability is not simply an "issue" to be dealt with by able-bodied theology. Rather, through their very praxis, these models show that experiences of disability bring valuable insights to the disciplines of religious studies and theology, insights that travel and carry weight beyond these disciplinary boundaries.

Of course, each of the models presented here has shortcomings: even as they highlight issues of concern in relation to disability, other issues are overlooked, such as racism, violence, and irresponsible consumption, in addition to the full diversity of experiences of disability (e.g., could Eiesland's Disabled God be cognitively disabled? Does Black's commitment to inclusion mean that some advocates of Deaf Culture are not living in the image of God? Is Block's proposal of the Accessible God intelligible for those who experience chronic pain?). Yet these shortcomings are not altogether surprising: every model of God is metaphorical, as Sallie McFague says, offering just "one square in the quilt, one voice in the conversation, one angle of vision" (McFague, 1993, p. viii). Beyond this, it is important to note that each of the models presented here focuses specifically on the Christian tradition; we are still in need of imaginative theologians to reflect on images and metaphors from other religious traditions. And this, too, is an insight we gain from reflection on disability — there is so much diversity that we must attend to, noting commonalities while also valuing the beauty of radical diversity.

To describe her struggle with images of God and the need for new images, Eiesland relates the following story:

A man was wandering in a deep jungle not knowing where he was. Suddenly, he saw another man approaching him and so he called out, saying, "Help me, I'm lost." And the fellow who was approaching shook his head and said that he was lost too. But he did have one piece of advice. He gestured back over his shoulder and said, "Don't go that way, I've tried it already." Theologically, people with disabilities have tried most, if not all, of the well-trod theological paths in responding to our queries about the meaning of disability in the world. We have found them mostly treacherous and inaccessible (Eiesland, 1998b, p. 30).

Eiesland argues that existing theological paths are inaccessible, and that people who value the experiences of disability must forge our own paths. The three models discussed above do just that: offer new paths and new possibilities. They show us that accessibility is about more than just ramps and inclusive language; the question of accessibility is important all the way through to the very core of our practices and our belief systems. Beyond this, we see that there is great potential for disability theology to go beyond issues of accessibility, offering new images, understandings, and practices that draw on the knowledge and insights that come from wildly diverse experiences of disability. The impact of disability theology is confined neither to people with disabilities nor to the arena of religion, but rather, as we have seen with other liberation theologies, has the potential to affect wider worlds and fields of study as well. Critical reflection on and from disability has the potential to expand our understandings and worldviews, offering a significant contribution toward a future that is fully inclusive of and congruent with the immense complexity that comes from our diverse experiences of embodiment.


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