I am lying comfortably on the table in my acupuncturist’s office. Mellow music plays in the background while my acupuncturist soothingly talks me through my treatment. As we chat casually about the different approaches between Eastern and Western medicine, she suddenly stabs me with a metaphorical needle, puncturing our trust: in the same calm tone she has been using all morning, she tells me that, within Chinese religions, physical illness and disability are often understood as “a result of mistakes made in a previous life—a disability is an indication of a lesson that one’s spirit needs to learn.” Inaccurately conflating the rich diversity of Chinese philosophical and religious systems of thought under the single blanket of “Chinese religions,” my white acupuncturist has simultaneously disseminated incorrect information and made me feel inferior and unmeritorious.
Her suggestion that I am to blame for my disability jolts me back to a similar experience from the previous year, when I was traveling with my guide dog, Papaya, and needing to catch a connecting flight. An airline employee assisted me with the transfer while discussing the unending bounties of Jesus’s love. In what appeared to be her characteristically upbeat and friendly tone, she stated, “You know, Jesus heals all sins; if you just pray hard enough, Jesus will take away all your sins and heal your blindness.”
Neither my acupuncturist nor the airline employee knew the details of my life story when they spoke these unintentionally hurtful words. Noting that I am blind, they drew on their own spiritual traditions to make sense of my disability, not imagining that I have been engaging with issues of religion and disability, on my own terms, all my life.
Growing up as the daughter of a Mennonite minister in a tight-knit, relatively insular, Protestant denomination, I attended Mennonite schools and was surrounded by Mennonite friends. After much personal and academic reflection, I earned a Ph.D. in religious studies and now teach world religions at a women’s college. My spouse is an Episcopal priest. My lifelong engagement with religion has thus shaped my perspective on disability, making me acutely aware of how words—especially when linked to religious teachings and ideologies—annex uncanny power in shaping our understanding of ourselves and others.
The words uttered by my acupuncturist and the airline employee raise important questions about how religious traditions teach about disability and, in turn, how religious practitioners understand disability. How many religions teach that disability is a result of individual sin or karma? How many sacred texts communicate messages of exclusion to people with disabilities?
For religious communities that aspire to promote inclusion of and justice for people with disabilities, expanding the definition of “accessibility” is an important starting point. Legislative efforts such as the Americans with Disabilities Act define accessibility in terms of equal access to education, employment, public spaces, health care, and legal protections. To make deeper change, however, we must go beyond these necessary forms of institutional accommodation, redefining accessibility to include shifts in attitudes about people with disabilities, which in turn will promote their full participation and inclusion in our religious communities.
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