“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The beginning of ableism.
A little explanation
You’re probably wondering where the heck I’m going with this? So I have to share, I’m not one to comfortably speak about faith or anything religious, despite it playing a big part in my private life.
Perhaps that came from growing up and watching my typically easy going mother become instantly incensed when the doorbell and there were people trying to convert her on the other side. She wouldn’t even give them a chance to open their mouths before she said, “I don’t bother you with my religion; you don’t bother me with yours!” SLAM went the door.
Okay, never talk about religion with others, my young self thought.
Ah, but…maybe using religion as a jumping off point for a bigger discussion on ableism…that I can do. And I did, this past weekend at All Saints Church in Syracuse, NY. It received a very favorable response about taking a closer look at ableism, so I thought I’d bring you a slightly abridged version of it.
Back to ableism
The Center on Disability Rights has, in my opinion, the best definition of ableism, “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.”
If you read the biblical story, you’ll learn that Jesus disagreed with the belief that disability needed “fixing” or “forgiving.” He responds to the ‘who sinned?’ question with “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” If you have difficulty with the word ‘God,’ substitute whatever term works for you.
Now when we see a blind person navigating a busy street, hear a person with autism process the world through verbalizing sounds, rather than words, or see a person using a wheelchair, trying to get through a snow covered sidewalk on a frigid January day, do we think, “Oh there’s God’s work made visible”?
Could a wave of pity wash over you? An instantaneous run through your mind the phrase, “Oh, for the grace of God (again, whatever term works), go I.” Or you may have an urge to help the person, to take what you perceive as a struggle away from them? Maybe all of the above, plus a ripple of fear.
And if you feel all of this, you’re human.
We all have our ‘isms’ and fear
Is feeling this way also ableism?
Well, yeah, it is…but I too am I’m grateful that I don’t use a wheelchair for mobility, that I can drive, that I can use my voice to get someone’s attention, that I can see my son’s face change as he grows.
We all have our isms.
And the fear.
Fear because you know an illness, car crash, fall that causes a concussion, or the natural process of growing old can put you in the demographic of a having a disability.
We love to say, “You can join us at anytime.” And we mean that – literally.
Disability touches our fear in ways that probably remain deep in our subconscious. Disability touches our fear of vulnerability, being exposed to not being able to do as others and needing help from others.
Ableism is alive and well when we pity, try to take away the assumed struggle without asking, and pursue a fix for a flaw that just isn’t there.
Our isms evoke fear because they’re created out of fear. Fear of difference, fear of what doesn’t fit our norm, fear of being challenged to think differently. This fear, though, has transformative power if we allow it.
Healing the root of it
Healing and transformation is not in the body or mind.
It happens in our hearts when we heal the fear that is at the root of any ism – racism, homophobism, sexism, ableism – we become stronger and better than before.
Now, the charge…
Ableism remains very present in our culture. Two thousand years ago, it was believed the blind man or his parents sinned to caused his disability.
Two years ago, Jessica Kramer, who writes for this blog and lives with cerebral palsy had this encounter:
“I was walking across campus to an appointment when I was stopped by another student. He very confidently turned to me and said ‘Excuse me, what is wrong with you? I am a Christian. I noticed you limping and wanted to know why so I could pray for you to get better.’”