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How Disability Stereotypes in Faith Communities Can Cause Harm

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Throughout the history of religions, there has been a tendentious relationship between disability and sacred texts. In Judaism and Christianity, health conditions have been described as the result of sin, given by God. In Christianity, Jesus is conceptualized as a healer of ailments, a divine being who can cure disability by performing miracles. In many Eastern traditions, which have the concept of Karma, health conditions in this life are perceived as a punishment for wrongs in a previous incarnation. These doctrines set the stage for treatment in houses of worship that is too often marginalizing for disabled people.

Activists like Imani Barbarin have had their own set of troubling experiences around disability and religion. On Twitter, Barbarin elucidated her encounters with Christianity in a series of tweets:

“[A]s I grew older, some little things would come up. Like parents yelling at their kids and pointing to me as to why they didn’t have an excuse. Or people who weren’t too familiar with my family making the assumption that I was some little angel (haha, no). By [and] large, my experience being turned into inspiration porn happened [o]utside of my own church and mostly happened when I would visit others or mostly when I was just in the street minding my business. When I would visit, people would try to get me to be healed by their pastors or if I walked by pro-life evangelicals, they would shout at me, [t]elling me I should be grateful my mom didn’t abort me. Probably what got to me the most was when people would tell me that the reason I wasn’t healed was because I didn’t believe hard enough or have enough faith. That it was my fault for not doing enough to not be disabled.”

Inspiration porn, which is a phrase popularized by the late Australian comedian and disability rights activist, Stella Young, refers to the exploitation of disabled people and their stories for the benefit of nondisabled people. In Barbarin’s account of inspiration porn, other children in the church didn’t have an excuse for misbehaving, because she “had it so much worse” and was still acting polite. The assumption with this genre, however, is that disability is what Young has termed a “Bad Thing,” and that disabled people exist to remind nondisabled people how lucky they are not to be similarly “afflicted.”

The most insidious part of what Barbarin and others have experienced is being prayed over to be cured, and feeling utterly inadequate for not being “right with God” when their disability or illness doesn’t disappear. Barbarin elaborated upon her subjective experience of not feeling like a good enough Christian:

“[Religious people] would have all of these stories about someone they knew who was healed and how faithful they were and how if I really dedicated my life to god, I would be too. This would lead to me crying on my bedroom floor pleading with God to be healed bargaining with him to give [m]e a sign to show me I was worthy. It never happened. When I started working for the church, those instances went into hyperdrive, not in the office, but at the events I would have to go to as a part of my job. Once I was prayed over to be healed 12 times in one day.”

Such feelings of inadequacy begin to eat at the conscience and sometimes even the faith of the disabled believer. Some decide to leave the church altogether after such negative experiences vis-a-vis religion and disability. Other non-disabled people have adopted a fatalistic way of dismissing the concerns of this marginalized community, pronouncing “that’s the way it was written,” to invalidate their experiences. In other words, discrimination and poor treatment need to be accepted because it is God’s will to have a certain lot in life.

The answer to the ostracism many disabled people feel at church is in building an inclusive ministry, which is described by as “one which enables, empowers and engages all persons within the worshipping community, regardless of ability. This stems from a belief that God has created us as equally-valued people in His image.” This website then quotes Scripture to justify the inclusion of disabled people in the faith community. “‘Let us create man in OUR Image’” (Gen 1:26). The image of God is best reflected in community. Together we live out the mandate of Luke 4:18-21, proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ to everyone.” Such a faith practice will include disabled people in all aspects of religious life and will make them welcome members of the community. This approach emphasizes the healing that occurs with Jesus, not necessarily the curing of ailments. It also works to challenge outdated modes of viewing disability as sin, so that disabled people can feel just as accepted in church as nondisabled people.

Getty image by Stephanie Murton.

Originally published: May 26, 2021
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