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In this first week of Advent, today (December 3rd) the United Nations observes International Day of Persons with Disabilities “to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”
The UN emphasizes the importance of this work not as charity but as “an investment in a common future.”
As an abled scholar and teacher of disability studies and theologies, I concur.
When one in four adults in the United States live with a disability and many of us will experience disability in our lifetimes, attending to disability is central rather than peripheral to the hopes we have for our futures.
A year of global pandemic has made clear that we are all radically interconnected as human bodies and responsible to that connection, a condition that disability theologian Sharon Betcher calls “the obligation of social flesh.”i
While obligation to mutual flourishing is sometimes framed as support for “the most vulnerable,” disability communities draw attention to the ways that structure makes some people vulnerable by failing to value and prioritize some lives.
As scholar Julia Watts Belser argues, “Focusing our attention on the vulnerability of the body makes disabled people’s deaths seem inevitable. It obscures the social and political dimensions of risk.
It lets us off the hook for the way we’ve built a world that makes certain people less likely to survive.”
Such perceptions of intrinsic vulnerability can also obscure the community building, courage, and organizing of disability care work and resistance.
“No Body Is Disposable” and disability justice movements have fought for disabled lives in 2020 and raised awareness about the biopolitics that renders some people expendable.
The rallying cries of disability activists call forth an orientation to disability that is uncommon to some of us: not a problem to be pitied,
rehabilitated, or solved, but an experience of people whose diverse ways of inhabiting the world make it better.
Disability activists remind us that creating access to this world, healthcare, learning communities, and religious institutions, is both a necessity and always more than an obligation: access is love.
Access-oriented love requires conversion from ableism to a different kind of church and society.
This conversion from ableism to a vision of access to mutual flourishing cannot happen in a single day or month; yet, this Advent season provides an opportunity to learn vital truths and dream dreams about a common future from disability-centered perspectives.
Here are some suggestions about ways to make this Advent an occasion for transformation toward disability justice:
1. Learn more about disability history. Watch the documentary film Crip Camp or read A Disability History of the United States by Kim Nielsen.
2. Pay attention to first person narratives. The Disability Visibility Project, Guide Gods Digital Collection, and Leaving Evidence are a few places to begin.
3. Learn the name of a disabled ancestor and their legacy. Begin with the work of Stacey Park Milbern, a disability activist who died this year.
4. Financially support disabled people and disability organizations that are doing the work of disability justice.
5. Participate in disability creativity and joy, such as witnessing the choreographies of Alice Sheppard or the lip-syncing of L’Arche Atlanta.
6. Read The Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland and/or other texts that invite reflection on disability theologies and practices in churches and religious communities.
7. Become reflexive about ableist language, such as metaphors that refer to being blind, deaf, or lame, or that idolize sighted and hearing worlds. Such metaphors and images are abundant in Christian lectionary readings for Advent.
8. Consider healing texts and rituals that perpetuate harmful understandings of disability, and commit to disability-centered engagement with these practices. Attend to the politics of health and healing by learning more about the kinds of policies that affect
disabled people’s well-being.
9. Participate in an institutional or denominational coalition that centers disability experiences and advocates for disabled people’s participation and leadership.
10. Support an access audit of your class, congregation, or organization. Identify one or two significant changes to make in the year 2021.
For more information on disability ministry, contact Dr. Spurrier at SpurrierR@CTSnet.edu.
Dr. Spurrier is interested in a theologies and practices of public worship that reflect the beauty and tension that human difference brings to Christian liturgy.
Engaging ethnographic theology, disability studies, and liturgical aesthetics, her research explores the hope of human interdependence and the importance of liturgical access for ecclesial practice and Christian community. She integrates a focus on liturgical and practical theology in the classroom with the formation of worship leaders through daily chapel services.
i Sharon V. Betcher, Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A Secular Theology for the Global City, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 7-8.