I was very lucky to be born disabled in 1966, just as the disability rights movement was gaining strength worldwide—I was born into an era of disability activists agitating for recognition that we are human beings like any other, and that we should be treated with respect and dignity.
This is a political claim, but it’s also a theological one that has resonance with the fundamental precepts of most religions. As a Quaker, for example, I am taught to look for “that of God in every one,” in the words of George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement.
In most cultural contexts and for many centuries, disabled people have struggled for inclusion and survival. Throughout history, many disabled children have died or been left to die. Although a few disabled adults achieved prominence in previous eras—including a blind Syrian poet, a dwarf civil servant from ancient Egypt, and a naval hero with multiple impairments—the majority have found it extremely hard to stay alive.
Over the ages, religion has been a mixed blessing to people with disabilities. The ethos of charity—understood as dana in Buddhism and Hinduism, tzedakah in Judaism, and zakat in Islam—has enabled some disabled people to find support and comfort. But traditional scriptures also describe impairment in terms of uncleanliness (Leviticus 21:16–23) or view problems in terms of possession by devils (Matthew 12:22 and Mark 5:2–20). Some scriptures also imply that a person is disabled as a punishment for their own sin or that of their parents (Exodus 20:5 and Matthew 9:2).
In the current moment, there exists much potential for religious communities to ally with the disability rights movement in creating accessible spaces of worship, new theological approaches to disability, and a new religious approach to disability justice.
The Social Model of Disability
Disabled people have organized powerfully within the last half-century to challenge our social oppression and cultural exclusion. As a group we have demanded the right to speak on our own behalf. We have rejected the idea of charity and pity.
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