Another perspective on disability and spirituality



Well, folks, it's like this. Of all the lectures I have had to write for this class this is turning out to be the most difficult one. I deleted the pages I already wrote and am starting over again.

The main contributor to my struggle deciding what would be helpful for you to know is that I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I have Been ordained for almost twenty years and I specialize in issues of disability and religion. Since I know a great deal about this topic I keep losing myself in waves of verbiage. It's a drawback of preaching -- my capacity for discourse is unlimited.

People with disabilities relationship to organized religion

To get us started I decided to cut to the chase. People with disabilities in this country have a general distrust of organized religions. Obviously there are those who find spirituality and religion to be meaningful and feel it enhances their lives. For the most part, however, people with disabilities stay away.

I believe that people with disabilities shy away from religion because they feel very, very judged and these feelings are so loud that it is easier to just avoid the arenas of spirituality and religion. I think of spirituality as an individual's direct and personal relationship with his or her higher power (however they define it). Religion is the system structure in which people may choose to exercise their spirituality.

It helps to know that pretty much all religions have some kind of belief system in place to explain the presence of human disability. For many religions that explanation is the condition is a result of sin. In some religions the oral history around the concept of sin says that if a person stops sinning the "physical mark" of the sin will disappear. Often the ending of a sinful pattern is tied to the religious view of "healing." Even if the disabling condition is not regarded to be a direct result of sin there is often some kind of division between those who are "healed" and those who still require "healing."

Blindness and visual impairments rank way up on the list of signs of sinful behavior. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are filled with references to blindness and sight. Also darkness and light imagery are very powerful metaphors used to illustrate all sorts of beliefs and behaviors.

The language and imagery is so strong that it is almost impossible to discuss it. Basically the flow pattern in the language says that if you are blind you are out of the realm of the redeemed and if you are sighted you remain within it. It is very difficult to find a way to embrace the position that there can be anything good coming out of the experience of visual impairment when the religious tide says otherwise.

I am using very broad strokes of my brush to paint the overview of the connection of religion to people with visual impairment's self-esteem. Pleas understand that I am not criticizing anyone's religious beliefs. I respect all religions and I know each one of them has value. What I am showing you is the extreme side of this situation. People with disabilities and especially blind people have a hard time finding ways to express their spirituality while defending themselves against the thought forms being generated by certain religious systems. The issue here is how to handle the strong beliefs coming at them - Not whether or not the viewpoint is accurate.

Enhancing blind people’s self-esteem through spirituality

One way we can begin to address the self-esteem of people with visual impairments through their spirituality is by not challenging how they feel about themselves Or their spiritual nature. Whatever they feel about their blindness is what is true for them in the moment. I try never to step on a person's beliefs because I do not want that individual to think that I am competing with them through my own belief system. I think that whatever someone believes is what's real for him or her.

The next thing I want to show you is the work of Susan Hanaford. Susan wrote a book a while back in which she pointed out that three different institutional Systems were created to respond to the needs and issues of people with disabilities. The Medical system, The Charitable system (which includes religion), and The Social services system (which also includes vision rehabilitation).

What Ms. Hanaford stated in her book is that these systems are forced to keep the experience of disability in a dependent position because these systems could not continue to exist if the human experience of disability was resolved. Her viewpoint (or thought form) at the time of writing this book is that the systems can never let people with disabilities be themselves because there would be too much loss for the institutions.

From our viewpoint now we can consider that these systems were designed to support people with disabilities even if there has been some kind of breakdown and they now depend on disability being seen as some sort of problem to be solved.

I think there is some truth in what Susan puts forth, but I also think we can upgrade her truth with our own. An upgrade of her truth is that all people deserve support and that these systems can evolve in their services without any loss as people with disabilities evolve in their self-understanding of what it means to have a disability in this country.

Another way we can upgrade the religious view of people with disabilities carrying the marks of sin is to notice that for some people having any explanation at all for their blindness is comforting. If blindness comes as the result of sinful action that could be seen as being less personal by the blind person. What I mean is if I as a blind woman thought I had done something wrong and I am being punished because of it with the lack of vision it might be easier for me to handle it if I believed that all blind people sinned in some way. It means that I am not alone and that there is an explanation as to why I am the only one in my family who became blind.

Another aspect of the view of a person with a disability suffering is that many religions set forth the belief that a person's disability will be resolved at the point of death. This implies that there is a resolution to the perceived difficulty of being disabled. This perspective is very comforting too many people with visual impairments.

Another perspective on disability and spirituality

As part of my work as a minister I proposed another view to address the experience of disability. This is coming out of the Christian belief system and I hope it have applications for other religious views.

I offer the possibility that each disability has a "key to the kingdom" buried within it. I believe that each disability experience has something special and unique associated with it. We wouldn't be so concerned with whether or not a disability is the result of sin if there wasn't something else going on with it. For people who are visually impaired or blind this could mean something like blind people know a lot about how to go forward in the dark. It could also mean that we know a lot about the nature of light since we are still capable of functioning when we can't access it easily. This has both literal and metaphoric connotations to it.

To expand this little more people who can't walk may know a lot about moving over the earth. Deaf people may know about the vibrational communication of sound. What If each disability has a very special association with Divine Truth?

Many years ago I did a presentation on spirituality and disability for a Hispanic congregation. I loved it because everything I said was translated into Spanish and I got to hear how my words flow in another language.One of the questions I was asked was very profound. Someone got up and asked if I sinned less because I couldn't see. I have never been asked this question before or since.After I finished blushing I said that blindness has nothing directly to do with sinning and that if it is true that I don't sin as much because I don't see it is just because of a lack of opportunity.

Impact of religious views on cultural attitudes and support

My story is important because it points to the value of examining the other side of the religious views of disability. Many people with disabilities benefit in this culture from the people around us having a belief that it is a charitable or holy thing to assist someone with a disability. I have had people help me out on the street and then tell me that I was there good deed for the day. Sometimes for the whole week. They are laughing when they say it, but there is some truth in their words. Right after September 11th happened I had people helping me constantly for weeks. They were performing acts of kindness Because they were frightened and they were relying on their religious beliefs to support them during that troubled time.

People with disabilities may not like the view that we need help, but it can be difficult to walk away from a high level of assistance. We can't very well criticize religion for promoting a less than positive view of which we are without being sure that we can live well without the support the belief system generates. This is subtle, but a very potent aspect of the social interactions in our society.

One spin-off of a religious view which blind people carried for a long time is that we are psychic. No one really talks about this anymore, but it still hangs around the edges. In a way it is a compliment because it lends itself to the awareness that visually impaired and blind people have well-honed sensing abilities. It also harkens back to the time period in human history when blind people did have a great deal of insight and acted as oracles for the tribe or community in which they lived. I believe that everyone is a little bit psychic and it is not all that strange for people to entertain the possibility that highly developed sensory abilities can be expanded in new ways.

Some of you touched on this a bit in your movie reflection papers when you talked about Frank Slade's ability to identify perfume by its scent. Most of you thought that this was magnifying a blind stereotype of a highly developed sense of smell. Actually I think it is a pretty normal thing for a man to do if he spent time at a perfume counter. I can also tell some perfumes by the scent and I haven't put in any quality time at the local perfumery.

An interesting little twist for us to think about in the conversation about blind people being psychic is that it could imply that the experience of blindness contributes to a person's life and well being. Perhaps it says that blindness carries with it some elements of empowerment. It might be said that when one of the sensory abilities goes down others come forward and assemble themselves in ways that create expanded life experience.

It is also true that in some shamanic tribes a physical or mental disability is held as a sign of divinity. Blind people can be elevated to the position of the shaman or the tribal leader.

Within the Egyptian pantheon there is a god known as Ammon Min. When all the men of his village went off to fight a tribal war he stayed behind because he only had one arm and couldn’t defend the village effectively. The other men were gone for several years and when they returned they discovered that their wives had given birth to a number of new children.

The men grew angry and dragged Ammon Min off to kill him. After they calmed down a little they realized that he kept the village alive and their wives happy so they elevated him to a god.

This goes to show that everyone’s view is perfect for them and spirituality is very individual.