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How Disability Theology Is Helping Me Heal from Societal and Internalized Ableism

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We’ve all heard the familiar condescension.

“I know you think you’re a smart girl, but I’m the doctor.”

“It can’t be that bad – stop being a martyr.”

“You look healthy.”

You’re too young to be in that much pain.”

“You’re too complicated – there is nothing else I can do to help you.”

“Just wait until you’re older and doctors do things to your body you don’t want them to.”

“Aren’t you better yet?” …as if we’ve forgotten the definition of chronic.

Living with five chronic illnesses – four physical, three congenital, none my “fault” – I am forced to battle societal and ingrained ableism every day. Sometimes the remarks are subtle, and even I don’t see the ableist undertones right away. More often, I continue to be harmed by well-meaning people who insist if I “had more faith” or “prayed more” I would “get better.” Not only does this cause harm by blaming me for my chronic illnesses, it is also terrible theology, cherry-picking verses from holy text out of context to justify the ableist bias that my divergence from the “normal” able-bodied person is “wrong.” I continue to be harmed by well-intentioned people who think they are helping or giving me a compliment when they say I “look healthy” or I’m “too young to be sick.”

I am beginning the third term of my first year of Theological School. This means that for almost eight months I have been blessed to learn alongside students and faculty from diverse religious and academic backgrounds who each experience a wide range of intersecting privileges and oppressions because of their identities. Theology is broadly defined as the way we seek to connect with something greater, the lens through which we understand Mystery given our embodied reality in this world. There are many different types of theology – Liberation Theology, Process Theology, Systematic Theology, Practical Theology, and on and on – because each is formed from our lived experience in a world that values “normal” and punishes all who divert from this false standard. I am finding immense healing in the lens of Disability Theology and have hope for its significant potential for combating both societal and internalized ableism.

Disability Theology is giving me the tools to resist ableism in all forms by deconstructing the ableist lie that disability is something to be “fixed,” a problem to be “solved,” a “choice,” or a “consequence of sin.” By connecting to the Divine through this theological lens, I am able to reclaim my relationship with the Holy Spirit – who is all too often held up as the great Healer of able-bodied people while attacking disabled bodies – as an entity who fully loves diverse bodies and does not desire to “fix” me or any of my disabled siblings because we are fully loved as we are. We are already both holy and whole. There is no need to “pray harder” to be “healed.” Rather, I can pray for more low pain days than high, recognizing the reality that I do experience pain daily and refusing to submit to the ableist refrain that if I “had more faith” God would heal me. God made me and my diverse body, and God does not seek to change it because there is nothing “wrong” with disabled bodies. I am not “being a martyr” by recognizing my lived reality – it is more than OK to speak about life with chronic illness.

In her book “The Disabled God,” Disability Theologian Nancy Eiesland makes our bodies the starting point and reminds us that we do not “overcome disability and the body pain that it entails” but rather we come to our bodies “tolerating its limitations and doing what [we] can.” Disability Theology emphasizes that social attitudes and ableist institutions are the problems, not our nonconventional bodies. Here, we fully participate in the world through, not in spite of, pain and we are able to “discern in our bodies, not only the ravages of injustice and pain, but also the reality of surviving with dignity.” Empowered by this embodied theology, I commit to speaking up about what it’s like to live with invisible disability in order to deconstruct the narrative that the only “real” disabilities are visible. I commit to talking about disability without feeling guilty for how it makes able-bodied people uncomfortable because it is more than OK to speak about my lived reality.

I am proud of the compassion I have been able to show to my present self and to younger versions of myself who received new frightening diagnoses and were afraid to live fully in my beautiful disabled body. Though she still lives inside of me, I am no longer that 5-year-old child who was told her very real symptoms “did not exist” but were simply “all in her head.” I am no longer that 16-year-old kid who, after a decade of gaslighting, was stereotyped for an official diagnosis and constantly watched as if she were going to explode. I am not that 18-year-old forced to delay beginning college to have brain surgery, convinced by doctors that this one surgery would magically fix everything, and I am not the 20-year-old girl forced to travel 3000 miles to advocate for treatment after over a dozen local doctors failed to provide more than painful medication side effects.

All of these identities are real, and I have growing compassion for these young girls who live inside of my soul, but I am no longer ashamed of my disabilities. I do not feel the need to hide them. My illnesses do not define who I am, but they often define what I can do, and in this capitalist, ableist world we are judged by what we can do. I cannot resist the ableism inherent in this judgment if I do not reckon with my own internalized ableism, the pressure I put on myself to do more and to believe that my value comes from what I am able to do. Disability Theology is a refreshing perspective in our disability-fearing world and is an essential reminder that all bodies, with our many beautiful, frustrating, painful differences, are profoundly loved.

You are holy and whole, dear ones. Exactly as you are.

Getty image by Oleksandr Yakoniuk.

Originally published: April 6, 2022
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