I will soon be heading to San Francisco, where I will attend the annual convention of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. While there, I will have the opportunity to attend a panel discussion reviewing Deborah Creamer's book, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructed Realities (Oxford University, 2009).
Creamer's book adds a unique perspective to a growing number of voices on theology and disability. Each person who speaks must balance his or her own perspective with the perspectives of people whose experiences may be vastly different. The experience of living with disability, or with the impact of a family member's disability, is highly personal and prompts deep thinking about theological matters which are potentially life-altering. Jennie Weiss Block handles this balancing act most effectively in Copious Hosting (Continuum, 2002), proposing that Christians relate pluralistically to people with disabilities in light of their varied personal histories, economic status, educational levels, and even their attitudes about disability.
Deborah Creamer's struggle with the balancing act between personal identity and respect for the experiences of others which differ greatly from her own is clearly evident in her writing. She identifies herself as a person who occasionally uses a support cane. This episodic disability is difficult for people to understand, unlike the state of permant disability in which people can either do something or not do it.
Part of Creamer's theological premise is that all people have limits. She attempts to narrow the perceived gap between the supposed "able-bodied" and "disabled" by de-emphasizing ability and emphasizing the universality of "limit-ness." Disability, unlike race or gender, is not a static minority. It is a state into which people often enter as they age. It is also a state into which people may enter unexpectedly due to illness or accident. The encounter with a person who is visibly disabled often provokes fear as it reminds the person who perceives herself to be able-bodied of the precariousness of health and ability. Creamer's theology is an attempt to deconstruct fear and instead construct hope.
A potential unintended consequence of Creamer's theological premise arises when people who have greater ability use "limit-ness" to construct false points of identification between themselves and those who have legitimate functional disabilities rather than engaging in much-needed dialogue and making accommodations which would enable greater access.
Once, when requesting an accommodation that would have enabled me to comprehend a portion of a worship service which was completely inaccessible, I was told, "We all have limits, and all of us don't appreciate all parts of the service in the same way."
The fact that all people have limits should never become a reason to tolerate failure to empower those whose limits are greatest. When Zacchaeus, who was short, climbed up into a tree so that he might see Jesus over the crowd, Jesus went so far in accommodating his need that they ended up at Zacchaeus's home having conversation over dinner! (Lk. 19:3-6) When confronted with the real, practical challenges facing people with disabilities, we must go out of the way to hear, learn, and meet needs. A lack of appreciation or interest is greatly different from an inability to hear, see, participate as community, or understand. These kinds of limitations we must avoid wherever possible.
Sarah J. Blake LaRose is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Anderson, IN) whose special areas of interest are biblical languages, ministry with seekers, and equipping the church to include people with special needs. Sarah is the author of two chapters in Discipleship that Transforms: An Introduction to Christian Education from a Wesleyan/Holiness Perspective, published in 2011 by Warner Press. She presented a paper with Lauren Tuchman entitled "Using Technology to Meet the Needs of Biblical Language Scholars Who Are Blind" at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco in 2011.