The Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) estimates that about 10% of the country's population have a form of disability. With a population estimated at 32.2 million, a 2003 economic survey noted that approximately 3.2 million persons in Kenya have a disability.

The rights of people with disabilities (PWD) are well protected in existing international, regional, and national human rights instruments. They include the formulation of the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) and Kenya's Persons with Disabilities Act (2004). The purposes of the Convention and the Act are to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. They are further meant to facilitate the full participation of PWD in all sectors of society.

Despite these efforts, the rights of PWD in Kenya are not always upheld. The lives of PWD continue to be marked by experiences of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. For instance, employment practices tend to favour people without disabilities. This inhibits the ability of PWD to become productive members of the society (Centre for Disability Rights, 2007).

One of the major root causes for the discriminatory acts against PWD in Kenya is religion-related. Theological interpretations of disability have significantly shaped the ways in which society relates to PWD. The Bible is intermingled with texts that have been interpreted in oppressive ways and together these continue to reinforce the marginalization and exclusion of PWD in the social, economic, political, and religious life of the society. This is evident in the experiences recounted by PWD.

This paper analyses Biblical and theological perspectives on disability, considers their implications on the rights of PWD in Kenya, and assesses the work of the church in Kenya in relation to disability rights.

Traditional Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Disability

Eiesland (1994:73-74) identifies three theological themes that have created obstacles for PWD. The first is conflating disability with sin. The belief that disability indicates punishment for wrongdoing and mars the divine image in humans has often barred those with disabilities from positions of leadership or stigmatized them for their presumed lack of faith.

The second theme views disability as virtuous suffering. Disability has been identified as suffering that must be endured in order to purify the righteous, a teaching that encourages passive acceptance of social barriers for the sake of obedience to God.

The third theme perceives PWD as cases of charity. Although charitable activity for PWD is at times a means of creating justice, it subverts justice when it segregates PWD from society and keeps PWD out of the public eye rather than empowering them for full social, economic, and political participation. The outcome of all these themes is what Eiesland (1994) has referred to as a "disabling theology." The Bible, which is the major source of Christian theology, illuminates this further.

Biblical Perspectives on Disability and Emerging Theological Themes

In the Bible disability is viewed as a disease (The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible: 1962; Encyclopaedia Judaica: 1972). The most common diseases mentioned in the Bible are blindness, deafness, dumbness, leprosy, and paralysis. Visual impairment is the most common form of physical disability in antiquity. Aside from people like Isaac (Gen. 27:1), Jacob (Gen. 48:10), Eli (1 Sam 3:2 and 4:15), and Ahijah the Shilomite (1Kings 14:4), whose eyesight failed in old age, natural causes of disability are not mentioned in the Bible. Disability is attributed to God. The general view of the Old Testament writers is that God brings disability as punishment for transgressions for sin or as an expression of God's wrath for people's disobedience. It is seen as a curse and as a result of unbelief and ignorance (Jewish Encyclopaedia, 1920; The Talmud of Jerusalem, 1956; and Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972).

The Bible portrays disability as a curse and as a result of disobedience, unbelief, and ignorance. In Leviticus 26:14-16, as one of the punishments for Israel's disobedience is expressed in the following way: "I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life." Samson also sinned against the Lord through his eyes; as it is written: "I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife" (Judges 14:2). He was therefore punished through his eyes: "Then the Philistines seized him, gorged out his eyes" (Judges 16:21). Prov. 30:17 warns that the eyes, which are disrespectful to parents, will be plucked out by birds of prey.

The blindness of the wicked men of Sodom (Wisdom 2:21) and of Elymas, the magician who obstructed the work of Paul in Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12), are specifically attributed to divine punishment. The ancient nations regarded visual impairment as the lowest degradation that could be inflicted upon humans and, by extension, to a nation. The Deuteronomist suggests that visual impairment is a curse for disobeying the commandment of God. Israel was threatened for breaking the covenant.

The Lord will inflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of the mind. At midday, you will grope about like a blind man in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything that you do, day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you (Deut. 28:28-29).

Two cases of paralysis further confirm that God is the cause of disability. The sudden paralysis that afflicted King Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:4) attests to this. In Zechariah 11:17, a curse is invoked upon the "negligent shepherd." God's judgment is severe; Jeroboam's arm shrivels up completely. Zechariah says: "Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! May his arm be completely withered, his right eye totally blinded."

Similarly, in 2 Chron. 26:16-23, we read the story of King Uzziah who, because of his unfaithfulness to God, was struck by leprosy "because the Lord had afflicted him" (Vs 20). Uzziah lived in a separate house and was excluded from the temple of the Lord because PWD were not allowed into the temple. They were considered unclean. Further examples that portray disability as a curse can be found in Zephaniah 1:17 and Zechariah 11:17. In Zephaniah, God promises to bring distress on the people because they have sinned against Him: "They will walk like blind men." God strikes his servant's assailants with blinding flashes (Gen. 19:11; 2 Kings 6:18-20 Acts 13:10-12) or with permanent blindness (Zech. 12:4; Ps 69:23) in order to protect his servants (see also Psalms 6:7 and 69:3).

The New Testament also supports the link between sin and disability. This link is well illustrated in John 9:1-3. The disciples anticipated a connection between disability and sin with the question: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" This question implies that disability was the punishment meant for some unspecified sin. When Jesus healed the physically impaired man who lay by the pool of Bethesda, He said to him: "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you" (Jn. 5:14). This clearly indicates that Jesus thought there was a connection between the man's disability and some sin. In the portico lay a multitude of PWD and this comment applied to them as well (Jn. 5:3).

Similarly, when Jesus healed the paralytic man lowered through the roof (Mk. 2:1-12), Jesus said to him: "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Vs 5), and then continued with the physical healing of the man. The implication of this comment is that it was necessary first to get the sin out of the way before the disability could be healed. According to Grant (1997:77), the healing stories of Jesus "have also served as proof of the moral imperfection of people with disabilities."

The conflation between sin and disability confirms the religious model of disability, which views disability as a punishment inflicted upon an individual or family by God as a result of sin. Consequently, disability stigmatizes not only the individual but the whole family. The implication is the exclusion of PWD from the social, economic, political, and spiritual spheres of society.

The metaphoric use of disability in the Bible further reinforces the view linking disability with disobedience to God. Israel's disobedience is compared with disability. In Isaiah 43:8 the children of Israel are asked to lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf. In Isaiah 42:18-20, Israel is compared to the blind and the deaf:

Hear, you deaf; look you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord? You have seen many things, but have paid no attention: your ears are open, but you hear nothing.

Hearing impairment symbolizes spiritual stubbornness or wilful refusal to hear and obey the word of God (Jer. 5:21; Ez. 12:2). Israel is portrayed as a servant with ears, but not hearing and obeying her Lord (Is 42:18-20). The prophet is pictured as calling the Israelites to hear the word of God because their sins had deafened their ears (Is 43:8). The Israelites in turn are pictured standing with their hands over their ears, refusing to hear the prophets even while judgment falls on them (Zech. 7:11-14). They are deaf like the idols they serve (Deut. 4:28; Ps 115:4-8; Rev. 9:20; The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 1998).

Throughout the Old Testament, visual impairment is viewed as a symbol of ignorance, sin, and unbelief. It refers to the lack of intellectual or moral understanding (Is 29:9-10, 18). Judges are warned that bribes or gifts blind the eyes of the discerning (Exodus 23:8). Blindness is used to describe those who dwell in the darkness of prison or captivity (Is. 42:7, 16-19; 43:8; 49:9; Ps 146:7-8). The Psalmist complains that since God has punished him, the light of his eyes has gone from him (Ps.38: 10) and he hopes that his enemies will be cursed with blindness (Ps. 69:23).

Those who have been forsaken by God complain that they grope "like those who have no eyes" (Is. 59:10), and when the day of the Lord comes, God will bring blindness upon people, "that they shall walk like the blind" (Zeph. 1:17). The most significant passage showing the metaphorical use of disability is the story of the vision of Isaiah in the temple:

Go and say to these people: "keep listening but do not comprehend. Keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."(Is. 6:9-10)

Isaiah 44:8-10 sounds a warning to all who speak up for those who make idols that they are blind and ignorant. In Isaiah 56:10, blindness refers to negligence: "Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs; they cannot bark, they lie around and dream, they love to sleep." Isaiah is told that his mission is to besmear the eyes of Israel so that it will not "see" and repent and be healed (6:10).

The legacy of blindness as a punishment from God or a metaphor for sin and disbelief continues in the New Testament. In general, the gospels show Jesus as sensitive and caring to PWD. They are the main focus of the healing ministry of Jesus (Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52). At the same time, however, the negative images of disability in the Gospels are also significant. In the Gospel of John, sight and light are the symbols of truth while darkness and blindness are symbols of sin and unbelief. In John 9:41, Jesus responds to the continued questioning of the Pharisees with regard to the healing of a visually impaired person as follows: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin."

According to Hull (2000), Jesus uses the expression "blind" as a term of abuse in the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus attacks certain groups of people, he describes them as "blind guides" (Matt.23: 16, 24), "blind fools" (v.17), and "you blind Pharisees" (Vs.26). These verses give a disparaging image of blindness. Jesus called sighted people blind fools and teaches that the blind cannot lead the blind because they will both fall into a ditch. The metaphoric use of disability as a symbol of sin, unbelief, and ignorance further highlights the concept of disability as one that is viewed from a moral perspective.

Physical disability and the perfection of the body is another theme found in the Bible. In the very centre of this theology is the teaching found in the book of Leviticus, which sets forth the requirements for ministry. Physical imperfection is seen as an impediment to the exercise of the priestly office for the descendant of Aaron. In addition, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron, saying, none of your offspring throughout their generation who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight, or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord's food offering; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them (Leviticus 21:16-23).

The word "blemish" originally meant a "black spot." It later came to denote anything abnormal or deviating from a given standard, whether physical, moral, or ritualistic. The word "blemish" came to be used to describe the various abnormalities that disqualify one from priesthood (The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 1920).

The interpretation of this Leviticus text can be traced to the conflation between physical disability, perfection of the body, and moral impurity (Encyclopaedia Judaica: 1972). According to Eiesland (1994), the theological meaning of perfection has historically included physical flawlessness, and many religious orientations make a direct connection between physical perfection and spiritual beauty. Accordingly, PWD lack perfection and embody "un-wholeness." Wenham (1981:292 reference missing in Works Cited) also notes: "The idea emerges clearly that holiness finds physical expression in wholeness and normality." Physical disability is an obvious evidence of a person's sin and a sign of punishment from God. In other words, the perfection of the body is a symbol of the perfection of the soul (Melcher, 1998).

PWD are also viewed as unworthy in society. In 2 Sam 19:24-28, King David's servant, Ziba, bars Mephibosheth, who was physically impaired, from accompanying David on a trip. He was not worthy to be with the King because of his disability. Mephibosheth himself feels unworthy. In vs. 26, Mephibosheth says: "My Lord the King, since I your servant am lame." In addition, in Daniel 1:3-4, PWD are regarded as worthless. The king ordered Aphpenazi, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility to be trained in the king's service. Vs 4 particularly emphasizes that the men should be handsome and without any physical defect. This view further reinforces the earlier prejudice, in which physical imperfection is seen as an impediment to the exercise of the priestly office for the descendant of Aaron.

Although Biblical and theological views of disability have led to a discriminatory and exclusive approach to viewing PWD, it is important to point out that perspectives that take an emancipatory and inclusive approach to disability issues are also found in the Bible and Christian theology.

Emancipatory Biblical and Theological Views on Disability

The inclusivity of PWD is seen in God's plan for the restoration of the Israelites. We find God assuring the remnant of His people, Israel in Babylon, that the land of their captivity would be restored them and that they would return back to Jerusalem: "See, I will bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them the blind and the lame" (Jeremiah 31:8, 9). Micah 4:6-7 sets out God's plan concerning the people of Israel: "In that day," declares the Lord, "I will gather the lame, I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought grief, I will make the lame a remnant, and those driven away a strong nation." The eternal kingdom, which God will establish, will favor above all others the weak, the lame, and the outcasts. They are God's chosen ones, his remnants.

Isaiah 35:5-6 outlines the joyous return of the liberated Israelites: "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongues shout for joy…." In Is 29:18, God includes the handicapped in his plans of salvation: "In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see." In Is 33:23-24 we read that the abundance of spoils will be divided and even the lame will carry off plunder. However, it is important to note that there is a suggestion that physical ailment may be due to moral guilt (Vs 24).

From all the above texts, it is clear that in the restoration of the remnant people of Israel, God ensured that all PWD would also be brought back. God did not want the blind and the lame left behind. God wanted all of them restored, showing his concern for them. This may also suggest that their impairment should not be an excuse for not integrating them into the church. God did not leave them behind as liabilities during the restoration of the remnant of Israel to Jerusalem, and neither should Christians.

The theme of the restoration of PWD is also seen in the story of Mephibosheth (2 Sam.9). Mephibosheth was the son of Jonathan, King David's great friend. He had become lame on both feet as a result of being dropped by a fleeing nursemaid when he was young. The world looked at Mephibosheth as a useless, good-for-nothing man; being lame, he could not go out and be a warrior. Neither could he go back to the fields to till for his own household. His servant Ziba, who was reluctant to present him to David when he wanted to show his friend's son kindness, displays this attitude.

To King David, all the disadvantages of being lame appeared insignificant. When he is summoned to the King, even Mephibosheth wondered why the king should want to see "a lame dog like me." When he finally reached the King's palace, David said to him: "For I will surely show you kindness for the sake of Jonathan, your father. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to Saul, your grandfather, and you will always eat at my table" (Vs 7). The Bible records: "And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the King's table, and he was crippled on both feet" (2 Sam 9:13). King David's act is seen as a reflection of Jesus Christ's compassion and serves as an example of complete restoration of a person with a disability to normal life.

According to Rayan (1991:28) David did three things to restore Mephibosheth and show the world his rightful place:

  1. The restoration of self-esteem — all the time Mephibosheth had experienced an attitude of rejection, but now David shows him kindness.
  2. The restoration of his identity — after having lived at the mercy of a generous man, Machir, Mephibosheth now has been restored to his rightful inheritance. Not only were his material possessions restored to him, but also his title. He was restored to the status of a prince.
  3. The restoration to society — He, who was rejected by his own grandfather's servant, has now the opportunity to be among the king's family.

The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) further defines the place of PWD in the life of the Kingdom of God. A householder prepared a huge banquet to which he invited his special friends, the affluent and well to do. They gave all kinds of excuses why they could not come. The householder, angered, asks his servants to go out to into the highways and byways to bring in the poor and the maimed. In vs. 21 he says: "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." Earlier Jesus had said this to the Pharisee, who had invited him to celebrate Sabbath in his house:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives, or rich neighbors, if you do they also invite you back, and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed (Vs. 12-14).

According to Rayan (1991:29), the parable of the Great Banquet shows that Jesus Christ, in word and action, sets PWD within the circle of unity of the Christian church. The kingdom of God is not complete without them. This is clearly portrayed in Matt. 21:12-14. After the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem: "The blind and the lame came to Him at the temple, and he healed them" (Matt. 21:14). In Mark 16:15 we read: "Go you into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." This includes handicapped persons. This implies restoration of PWD of their rightful inheritance in Jesus Christ and their rightful place in the church as part of the "Body of Christ."

The Disabled God

Apart from inclusive Biblical perspectives on disability, there have been discussions in theological circles about a disability liberation theology that collaborates with human rights ideologies, notably as this collaboration encourages the recognition of each person's inherent dignity, regardless of one's race, religion, or impairment. This theology criticizes discrimination against PWD and emphasizes forms of social inclusivity.

Eiesland (1994) discusses disability rights through the lens of a liberation theology of disability. She does this by developing a liberatory theology of physical disability by examining the concept of the "Disabled God." Eiesland develops a powerful, contextualized Christology in which she presents the image of a Disabled God to make sense of the relationship between disability and theology. She argues against conceptions of personhood and normality that demand physical perfection, highlighting the fact that at the centre of the Christian faith stands a God who is Himself disabled. The disabled God emerges in the particular situation in which PWD find themselves as they try to live a life of worth and dignity.

Through the idea of the Disabled God, Eiesland has also developed a liberatory theology of disability that challenges oppressive structures and beliefs and develops new images and practices such as the image of God as "disabled," thus challenging the perfect body image of the divine. Her proposal is a model of God that makes sense of disability and one that supports and participates in the struggle for the liberation of PWD. She argues that traditional images of God, especially those that lead to views of disability as either a blessing or curse, are inadequate. Such a God would not understand disability and would have no meaning to PWD. If God is to be seen as having a disability, how would disability be viewed and how would this image change the negative views about PWD?

Eiesland makes a connection between the image of God as Disabled and the resurrection story, in which Jesus appears to his followers and reveals his injured hands and feet (Lk. 24: 36-39). The image of God includes pierced hands, feet, and side. She highlights the resurrected Christ's revelation of his wounds to his followers. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his disciples, the resurrected saviour calls his disciples to recognize in the marks of impairment their connection with God and their own salvation. The risen body of Jesus as "impaired" is taken as a further sign of God-Jesus embodying disability in his resurrected body and suggests that "disability indicates not a flawed humanity but a full humanity" (Eiesland, 1994: 207).

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. She suggests that Jesus reveals the Disabled God and shows that divinity (as well as humanity) is fully compatible with experiences of disability: "The resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are, disabled and divine" (Eiesland 1994: 45). Viewing God through a broken and disabled body should be at the centre of mission.

Eiesland's liberatory theology of disability is one of justice and inclusion of PWD. She grounds her liberatory praxis in the struggle of PWD to transform the oppressive structures, beliefs, values, and attitudes that lead to the social and theological exclusion of PWD. This is why she rejects definitions of disability that view it as located within individual impairments and provides a strong argument to suggest that much of the disablement experienced by PWD is socially constructed and therefore open to the possibility of transformation.

The Healing Narratives in the Gospels and Disability

Apart from examining the image of God, the healing narratives in the Gospels also gives insight into viewing theology as liberative rather than discriminatory. Christ's mission on earth, which is spelt out clearly in Matthew 11:2-5 and Luke 4: 18-19 (also called the Nazareth Manifesto) supports a liberative theology. When asked by John's disciples: "Are you He who is to come or do we look for another?" Jesus responded with words recalling the prophecies of Isaiah: "Go back and report to John what you hear and see; the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them" (Mt. 11:3-5).

Christ announced his mission in the synagogue in Nazareth as follows:

The spirit of the Lord . . . anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and the recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord favour (Luke 4: 18-19).

Jesus's ministry is bound up with the fact that He sought the company of people who, for one reason or another, were forced to live on the fringe of society (cf. Mk. 7:37). These He made the special object of His attention, declaring that the last would be first and that the humble would be exalted in His Father's kingdom (cf. Mt. 20: 16, 23:12). Indeed, the four gospels show Jesus spending much time with the "least" in society, and he displayed great compassion for PWD. There are many examples in the Gospels that support a liberation theology based on the options opened for PWD. In particular is the relationship established between healing narratives and disability.

Concern for people with disabilities was one of the prominent notes of Jesus's earthly ministry. Whether it was a person born blind in John 9 or the individual with the withered hand in Luke 14, Jesus was moved with compassion whenever he encountered PWD. Healing was one of the prominent manifestations of Jesus's ministry. In Matt. 21:14 we read: "The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them." In Matt. 15:30-31, we read:

Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking; the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing.

In the past, the healing narratives in the Gospels have been viewed as controversial by some scholars such as Hull (2001) and Grant (1997), who perceive the healing stories of Jesus as denoting a moral imperfection of people with disabilities. When Jesus healed the physically impaired man who lay by the pool of Bethesda, He said to him: "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you" (John. 5:14). This clearly indicates that Jesus thought there was a connection between the man's disability and some sin. In the case of disability, it is often assumed that healing is either to eradicate the problem to promote virtuous suffering, as if it were a contagious virus, or a means to induce greater faith in God. Such theological approaches to healing either emphasize "cure" or "acceptance" of a condition (Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), 2006).

Over the years, the healing narratives have been examined from a new perspective that is meant to challenge previous sentiments. This has to do with making a clear theological distinction between healing and curing. In this perspective, healing refers to the removal of oppressive systems whereas curing has to do with the physiological reconstruction of the physical body. For some theologians, Jesus's ministry was one of healing and not curing (EDAN, 2006).

In this kind of theology, disability is a social construct and healing is the removal of social barriers. From these perspectives, the healing stories in the gospels are primarily concerned with restoration of persons to their communities, not the cure of their physiological conditions. The healing acts of Jesus — for example, the healing of the blind man in John 9 or the man with leprosy in Mark 1:40-45, who asks Jesus to make him clean — suggest the ways in which Jesus restores people to their community. In like manner, in Mark 2:1-12, Jesus met the paralytic and forgave him his sins. Forgiving sins here means removing the stigma imposed on him by a culture in which disabilities are associated with sin or where someone is ostracized as sinful and unworthy of his society's acceptance (EDAN, 2006).

In these healing stories, Jesus primarily removes societal barriers in order to create accessible and accepting communities. By healing (not merely curing) PWD, Jesus brought them to the mainstream of society. Jesus created an inclusive community where no one was excluded on the basis of ability-disability. Likewise, the mission of the church is to make sure that existing walls of discrimination in society are removed. The good news of the Gospel from this perspective is that it creates inclusive communities by challenging oppressive and dehumanizing systems and structures. It must be noted that Jesus did not make a distinction between social restoration and physical healing. Both always happened at any given time of healing. Consequently, the integral relationship of health, salvation, and healing is an imperative for a holistic theological interpretation of disability. This requires a different theological discourse on the image of God from the perspectives of PWD.

There needs to be a redefinition of healing from cure of the individual to the individual's restoration to a valued social role. Healing is not so much about having something fixed or corrected as it is about being restored to one's rightful place in the community. There is a differentiation between healing and cure, where the healing stories in the gospel are seen as not "merely restoration of the body but more of the individual's restoration in and into the society" (EDAN, 2006: 4). Healing means creating environments in which PWD can participate fully in society.

Biblical and Theological Interpretation of Disability and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Kenya

The foregoing traditional and contemporary Biblical and theological views on disability have a bearing on the way in which society responds to the presence of PWD in Kenya, and in particular how they impinge on their rights. Society continues to use antiquated religious beliefs to explain the presence of PWD in Kenya. The consequences of the interpretation of disability to denote sin, disobedience, ignorance, and unbelief have contributed to some Christians adopting a discriminatory attitude toward PWD. As we have seen, the origin of disability in Biblical interpretation is still found in the thinking of Christians today (Esomonu, 1981). Disability continues to be seen as a misfortune and expressions such as "Who did wrong that this happened?" or "Everyone gets what he/she deserves" can still be heard from some people (Wilkes, 1980; Bayingana, 2001). The linking of disability to the "perfect body image" that is found in the Bible has caused PWD to be viewed and treated negatively. Society evaluates the depth of religious belief based on bodily perfection. It is assumed that if one is "right" with the Lord, there is no excuse for having physical flaws (Wenham, 1981). The result is that people make a direct connection between physical perfection and spiritual righteousness. The pervasiveness of this attitude is evident in most of the views voiced by PWD in Kenya. When asked about the reaction of people without disability towards them, one PWD narrated his experience:

As a wheel chair user due to polio, I have encountered an attitude of outright rejection whereby I am normally the object of pained and evasive glances. I have also experienced sanctimonious and pious tirades as well as judgmental attitudes on the issue of impurity by being asked to repent from some sin (Oral Interview, 12/02/2007).

Hull (2000) points out that the image of God in the Bible is thought of as a perfect body image. God cannot be thought of as suffering from upper limb malfunction or as being hard of hearing. God, who is the image of the perfect human being, must possess all faculties. In other words, the image of God is one of being able bodied. Accordingly, the God of the Bible is the God of the able bodied, not of PWD.

Wilkes (1980: 21) notes that the doctrine of the imputation of wholeness and righteousness has brought problems for PWD, stemming from the belief that strength of faith, or lack of it, has to do with his disability. Many people with disabilities get this kind of response daily. A visually impaired Christian is often asked the question: "If your faith were genuine, would Jesus not have restored your sight?" Such views prevent persons with disabilities from participating fully in social life.

According to Owen (1991:15-16), the result of people making a direct connection between physical perfection and spiritual righteousness is that many PWD are discouraged from looking for a religious home and feel neglected by the church. She gives an example of a healing service in the church where the priest asserts: "only the devil within us prevents each and everyone from immediately acquiring a perfect body." This image of a lesser and sinful being is reinforced by the way preachers bombard PWD with healing messages.

Because of the notion that disability is connected to sin, PWD in Kenya are often a target of healing ministries in churches. Pressure is often placed upon PWD to accept miraculous healing. If healing does not take place, it is confirmed that they indeed are sinners. One PWD captures his experience as follows:

I have been a member of various churches in which healing services have been held from time to time. I have never felt free to attend such gatherings because I think my attendance would be read in an ambiguous way. Some people might think I am coming in expectation of the restoration of my sight (Oral Interview, 12/02 /2007).

The contemporary church continues to raise questions about a PWD seeking to enter the ministry. Suggesting that certain physical disabilities are a disqualification for the ministry, Lev. 21:16-23 has been used to warrant barring PWD from ecclesiastical visibility and authority (The Interpreters Bible, 1953; Wilkes, 1980; Govig, 1982 and Eiesland, 1994). According to Govig (1982: 95), "this text is a barrier to the ordination of people with physical impairments. It is applied literally to forbid PWD from preaching." A study conducted on the ordination of PWD in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya shows that the church harbours some reservations in the ordination of PWD. It is believed that disability may hinder one's performance as a minister (Mwangi, 2007).

According to Wilkes (1980), another reason for barring PWD from the ministry is because the priesthood is a very public role. It is performed "before the congregation" or "in front of the congregation." Therefore it is believed that disability may illicit a negative response from the congregation: "Some forms of disability or disfigurement could cause discomfort or distraction within the congregation" (Wilkes, 1980:33).

It is clear that the notion of sin and impurity are themes that continue to be used to define disability. Having established this, what then is the role of the church in Kenya in terms of the protection and promotion of the rights of PWD?

The Church in Kenya and Disability Rights

The following story, given by a visually impaired person, is given to illustrate the exclusivity of the church with regard to PWD:

Clutching his ragged clothes around him, Kamau traced his steps slowly and steadily through the corridor to the main entrance of the church. It was Christmas day and the pews were overflowing with people. As the congregation stood up to sing, Kamau made his way through the celebrants. Suddenly, a rough hand gripped him and dragged him out. "I have not come to beg," he said. "I want to worship the Lord. " Before long, he was thrust outside the gate. Remorse and shame filled his heart and choked his voice. He sat down slowly cupping his head in his hands. "Why, oh Lord, Why am I blind?" he fumed within. "Isn't it just because I am blind, that I wasn't allowed to stay in?" "Don't I also have a soul?" (Adapted from Rayan, 1991).

In self-appraisal the World Council of Churches (WCC, 1982), the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC, 1991) and the NCCK (1993) contend that most of their member churches have yet to fully integrate persons with disabilities into their church and community life. Many churches have socio-economic development programmes, such as schools and medical facilities, though very few churches have specific programmes for PWD. AACC (1991) observes that most African churches have only nascent development projects for PWD while others have no such projects. This peripherization by churches of PWD has been noted by scholars (Bartley, 1977; Wilkes, 1980; Bach, 1991; Muller-Fahrenholz, 1991 and Kabue, 1993), who have suggested that churches have participated in discriminating against PWD and have not fully integrated them into the mainstream of the church and society at large.

Njoroge (2001:7) does not see PWD as a problem; rather, it is the attitude of the church that is the issue. She argues:

the problem is not that we have people who are deaf, mute and blind (and with other disabilities) among us, rather the churches and church related institutions are usually deaf, mute and blind towards our concerns and needs.

Masakhwe (1999:7) makes a scathing attack on the church in Kenya. He acknowledges that the church has been a key model in supporting people with disabilities but also notes that the church has also glossed over serious issues that affect PWD, and hence becomes part of the very problem afflicting PWD. The church has been very vocal on issues of human rights but it has not embraced disability and the concerns of PWD in its human rights crusade and agenda with the same vigour, even if disability issues are human rights issues as well. He attributes this attitude to the negative portrayal of the PWD in the Bible, as persons who are lacking or as sinners who must be cleansed and healed.

Although it has been suggested that churches discriminate against PWD, it is also important to recognise that the church was the first institution both globally and in Kenya to start providing welfare services to PWD. Special schools for children with disabilities were pioneered by churches. For instance, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) began the Kambui School for the Deaf in 1963. The first school for the visually impaired was established in 1946 by the Salvation Army, while the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) began St. Luke's School for the Deaf in Embu. The Catholic Church has also started a number of special schools in the country, such as St. Lucy's School for the Blind at Egoji. The Methodist Church has a school for the deaf in Meru. In addition, the Catholic Church in Kenya has addressed the issue of the rights of PWD. They have called on Christians to re-examine their attitude towards PWD and promote their well-being. The church has taken it upon itself to work with the Mentally Handicapped Association of Kenya to address the violation of the rights of people with mental disabilities in Kenya.

Christianity teaches that all people are equal (James 2:1-9). In Gen. 1:26-27 we read that all human beings are created in God's own image and likeness. The Bible teaches us that Jesus Christ came into the world so that people would have life in abundance (John 10:10). This implies the enjoyment of all human rights such as education, employment, and worship. Christ's mission involved curing the afflicted, feeding the hungry, and healing PWD (Matt 15:32, Mk 2:1-2). Jesus Christ gave a special place to them in His ministry because they were oppressed and marginalised in their community. He showed love and compassion for them and was concerned about their physical and spiritual well-being (Matt. 15:30-31; Mark 2:1-12). The apostles also followed this tradition (Acts 3:1-12). Consequently, the church finds its true identity when it fully integrates itself with these marginal people, including those who suffer from physical disabilities.

The contemporary church in Kenya as the bearer of Christ's ministry and message has a mandate to follow His example. The church is consequently expected to take care of PWD, who usually suffer neglect and discrimination in society. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK, 1996:1) summarises this expectation as follows:

The churches must increasingly become aware of the needs and problems of the handicapped in our society and endeavour to provide programmes, physical facilities, learning materials, opportunities and resources, and where possible involve the handicapped in participating fully in the church and community life on the understanding that the handicapped need appreciation not pity.

According to Wilkes (1980: 40), the church is being pushed and pulled by the emerging presence of PWD in the community and the challenge by individuals and groups of the disabled community. Because of this and a deeper theological awareness, the church is now moving toward a new sense of acceptance of PWD in the mainstream of both church and community life. They are an integral part of the church and the society and are essential for the wholeness and unity of the church.

Consequently, it is imperative that church leaders develop an inclusive world view so that PWD are sought out with the gospel and welcomed into Christian fellowship, and so that the church of Christ becomes an effective catalyst in bringing about change in cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities. The church as a whole "must recognize the spiritual and material needs of PWD and their families, and respond in a Christ like manner" (Govig, 1989: 98). To ignore the existence of disabilities is to deny reality; to ignore people with disabilities is sinful.

One of the missions of the church is to facilitate the integration of disability issues into the whole spectrum of the life of the church and society while at the same time giving adequate attention to those special and unique areas necessary to equalization of opportunities. One of these areas includes advocacy in disability human rights concerns. This means working with the churches towards participation and inclusiveness of PWD in the spiritual, social, and development life in church and society and advocating for the general improvement of services for persons with disabilities. The church must become an advocate for and with them.

Unfortunately, discriminatory practices against PWD in the church and society contradict these teachings. Churches are generally expected to advocate for the human rights of the marginalised and oppressed members of the society. By their very nature, churches are expected to work towards the attainment of equal opportunities for all people in the pursuit of creating an equitable and participatory community.

Churches need to identify with the problems faced by PWD and endeavour to create enabling environments in which PWD can participate equally with persons without disabilities in the social, economic, cultural, religious, and political life of society. Swain and Cameron (2003) observe that PWD want the same chances and opportunities in life as people without disability. They too want to gain an education and employment, to live in affordable accessible housing, to have relationships, and to be able to make their own decisions about the issues that affect their lives.


This paper offers four conclusions. First, traditional Biblical and theological perspectives on disability give the impression that disability is a tragedy and a punishment or curse from God for sin. Several texts in both the Old and New Testaments adduce to this. Second, in recent years there have been theological discussions on disability that are liberative and empowering to PWD and, while also grounded in Biblical texts, work in opposition to traditional theological interpretations of the Bible. These include images of God, such as the one proposed by Eiesland, in which God is imaged as having a disability. The Disabled God values embodiment in all its diversity and provides a profound example of inclusion, love, and acceptance. Third, traditional theological perception of disability has often led to PWD facing discrimination and the subsequent violation of their rights. Because of the shame often associated with disability, some families tend to hide their disabled members and do not take them to school. Finally, the church in Kenya has a role to play in the promotion and protection of the rights of PWD. Just as Jesus Christ broke down cultural barriers and attended to the needs of PWD, so should the church in Kenya.

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