This may not be an easy discussion, but it is a deeply, deeply necessary one. The subject I wish to broach today is one that is tremendously difficult for me personally, as it is for many people whom you will encounter in your professional and personal lives. The subject is language—specifically, language related to disability and the impact it can have upon folks when it is used casually or used as an analogy to express a point about the non-disabled experience, particularly when it is employed in the context of a sermon or other public teaching. It is often noted that language speaks volumes about a given society’s worldview, and one of the ways we can work to make this world just a bit better than we found it is by being intentional with our words and the ramifications they may have, ramifications which we may not even realize are present, because too many of us—and I place myself in this camp—are taught to be intentional with our words, but this has often not extended itself to being intentional with the words we use around disability. And indeed, for me at least, the fact that people often are utterly oblivious of the ramifications of their speech and the attitudes it conveys—subconscious and unintentional though they are–is what hurts me most profoundly.
I write this from the perspective of a blind Jewish woman and do not, and cannot claim to speak for all blind people, let alone all disabled people. There are as many perspectives as there are folks with disabilities, and my purpose in writing is to try to do my small part to make us the best spiritual teachers and leaders we can be, not to blame or shame or to insist that mine is the only perspective.
Over the past several decades, as societal views about those whom mainstream society has deemed “other”—the LGBT community, women, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, just to name a few—have undergone tremendous positive change, religious communities of all sorts have begun to recognize that we bring a wealth of life experience and perspective to the table and that our voices, previously marginalized, ought to be—indeed must be—part of the religious discussion. We have made concerted efforts to make our congregations welcoming and affirming, and I pray that these laudable efforts continue unabated for decades to come.
Nonetheless, religious communities, insofar as they try to be spiritually nourishing environments to which we may bring our whole selves are still the source of tremendous pain for many people. For many, particularly those on the margins, that pain stems in some part from the religious messages they hear about themselves from their clergy and others in positions of power and authority. It is too easy to use a casual metaphor or throw in a common expression without asking ourselves, “What did I mean to say here? If I embodied the physical state I am using metaphorically, how might I feel?” As clergy and future clergy, we need to own our part in that pain. We need to use our privileged position to spread a positive and affirming message of the worth of all people, and to spread that message from our pulpits.
Although our traditions do have positive things to say about disability, and those texts are omnipresent in disability-related sermons, religious theology about disability too often sees the disabled person as wholly other, apart from the able-bodied experience which is the dominant narrative. The disabled body is too frequently used as an analogy for the moral or spiritual failings of others. The disabled body is broken, other, and separate. The disabled body, with its physical markers distinguishing it from the whole, complete non-disabled body exists in this world, not because, as disability rights advocates argue, disability is a natural part of the human condition, but instead because God bestows God’s Divine favor upon it, and we can learn from God’s choice of an imperfect or defective Divine gift. I recognize I am being rather reductionist. Nonetheless, this sums up my experience and that of many others when hearing teachings which employ religious language about disability. What if we were to turn this understanding on its head? What would religious life look like if instead of speaking such messages from pulpits and other public venues we insisted upon the fact that the physical markers of disability do not mean that the personhood is broken, less than whole in some way, flawed? What would it mean for us if we spoke about the fact that everyone who engages with the sacred has ebbs and flows in their spiritual life without resorting to the use of disability metaphor when depicting our inner feelings of imperfection?
Society is rife with messages about the perfect body. We too often correlate bodily perfection with social value and personal worth. When such language comes from a religious setting, in which the teaching that we are all created in God’s image is supposed to be foundational, it can be incredibly painful. Instead of spiritually caring for all of those in our midst, we create pain, division, indeed exclusion. May we soon see the day when the perspectives of the disability community, and indeed all marginalized groups are fully brought to bear on religious discourse. May our communities spread the positive and affirming message—we are all whole, irreplaceable and unique. A disabled body does not mean that the person living in that body is broken.