The Holy Gift of Access

By Ebby Watkins, Media Coordinator

I’m going to state a fact, and I ask you to read it and sit with it for a moment before moving on:

Many disabled people are proud to be disabled. They do not have a desire to be “fixed” or “cured.”


Now first, a caveat — like any other community, disabled people are not a monolith. Every member has their own relationship to their disabled identity, and I am not speaking for all disabled people everywhere in this article. But it is a fact in my experience that many, many disabled people do not want to get rid of their disability.

If you haven’t heard this fact before, it’s understandable that you might feel resistance to believing it unconditionally. Please realize, as you read this article, and as you sit with this idea going forward (as I hope you will), that the resistance comes from the messages we’ve heard from our society and its systems of power. These are the same systems that tell us to scoff at the idea of being proud to be Black, or a woman, or that one’s queer sexuality is not something to be “cured.” The very same colonial, violent society tells us all these things (to be indigenous, POC, female, queer, trans, fat, poor, an immigrant, a child, disabled…) are lesser. It tells us to listen to the powerful instead of the voices of the actual people whose identities are up for discussion. (My experiences listening to those voices are the reason I use the phrase “disabled people” throughout this article; see the notes at the end for a longer explanation.)

So again, my siblings in Christ, it is understandable if your first response is something like “surely not—” or “what about—” or “but if it were me, I wouldn’t—”. And I hope you can draw deeply on your faith and what you know to be true of God as you move past that first response.

That is something that the church itself needs to do, when it comes to how our religion views and treats disabled people: we need to look towards what we know to be true of God and be willing to admit our traditional understanding has been harmful. American Christianity has historically seen disabilities as physical evidence of demons or sin, and there are a lot of Bible verses, from Leviticus to the Gospels, that seem to support that.

That’s the question I had that first prompted me to write this article: if we acknowledge that disabilities are morally neutral, and if we acknowledge that many disabled people do not think of their disability as something “wrong” with them, and if we acknowledge that all bodies are worthy and beautiful and made in the image of God … what are we supposed to think about how much of Jesus’ ministry involves going around and curing people’s disabilities?

It was a bit of a stumper for me, at first. I am no theologian, no Biblical scholar, and my relationship with the Divine too often resembles the Airing of Grievances at Festivus (“I’ve got a lot of problems with the way you made the world, God, and right now you’re gonna hear about them!”) But in my ten years at St. John’s I have seen again and again how acceptance and justice are not at odds with God—that in fact, they come from God and cannot be separate from God’s love for us—and so I knew the inconsistency was only in my own understanding.

I remembered a post I read years ago (long enough that it’s no longer around for me to link to it, unfortunately) by a disability justice blogger considering a similar question about the war in Iraq: was there a contradiction between her pride in her disabled identity and her concern over citizen casualties who suffered disabling injuries? She said no, and explained that an important context of her concern was that these people had become newly disabled in an environment that wasn’t prepared to, or able to, accommodate them. In losing a measure of physical ability, they had also lost access to the world around them.

Think of it this way: do you wear glasses, or know someone who does? Of course you do. Now, do you think of yourself or them as disabled? You probably don’t; I admit I never think of myself as being visually disabled, and yet if all eyeglasses disappeared from the earth tomorrow, I would lose all access to my job, my transportation, and much more. Without glasses, I’d only have two ways to get access back: if society changed into a place that accommodated visually disabled people; where the public transit system was expanded, where the signage was high-contrast and large-print, where every meme on Facebook had an “alt-text” description … or if my poor vision was “cured.”

I realized that the society in which Jesus lived wasn’t one that was set up to accommodate disabled people in a comprehensive way. And one of the running themes through his ministry was that whatever upheaval he was going to bring about wasn’t going to happen then and there. The problems he solved were all on an individual level. In John 8 he prevented the woman accused of adultery from being stoned, but he didn’t put an end to capital punishment everywhere. In all four Gospels he fed thousands of people from a few loaves and fishes, but he didn’t put an end to food insecurity everywhere.

Much like my example of a world without eyeglasses, for disabled people of Jesus’ time, their only chances for access were for their society to be remade to accommodate them, or for them to be “cured.” Jesus did many things every time he healed someone (he demonstrated the power of God, he spread the news of his ministry, he eased pain) including, crucially, that he also offered that person access back into their community. “Take your mat and go home,” he told the paralyzed man, and the man was able to go home. “Go in peace,” he told the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and she was able to leave the constant care of doctors and return to daily life..

The most striking examples might be when Jesus heals lepers. Although they were all doubtless suffering some effects from the disease, it was the attitude of the society around them that forced them to be outcasts. By healing them, Jesus may remove symptoms, but those aren’t even mentioned; what he removes is the barrier. We are very clearly to understand that the gift Jesus has given them is the ability to rejoin their communities and their loved ones.

Access. It’s a profound thing. In the Bible, it’s sometimes literally a gift from God. And it doesn’t have to come from “fixing” or “curing” someone — especially if that’s not what they want in the first place. That may have been the route Jesus took because it wasn’t part of his ministry to change society,, but the cool thing is, we can make it our ministry to help change the here-and-now. 

We can do it by offering accommodations like large-print Bibles; a sound system that integrates with hearing aids; stimuli for sensory-seekers and quiet areas for sensory-overloaded parishioners; hybrid meetings and livestreamed worship services. (Hey, these are all things we do already! That’s awesome!) We can stay adaptable, curious, and willing as we learn about other accommodations we can make that we hadn’t realized were needed.

We can believe disabled people when they say they’re proud to be disabled, and we can celebrate them, body and soul, all of us made in the image of God.

References and Resources

A word about terminology: the Stanford University Disability Language Guide states there are

“two major linguistic preferences to address disability. Putting the person first, as in ‘people with disability,’ is called people-first language. It is commonly used to reduce the dehumanization of disability. Another popular linguistic prescription is the identity-first language, as in ‘disabled people.’ Many use this style to celebrate disability pride and identity or simply because they prefer this. There is no unanimity on which is the more respectful style, it comes down to personal preference….Terms like differently-abled, challenged, and handi-capable are often considered condescending. By shying away from mentioning disability, we may reinforce the notion that disability is something of which to be ashamed.”

I have used identity-first language in this article because I want to focus on disability pride and because the majority of the disabled writers I follow prefer that term. 

In writing this article, I drew from two posts in particular:

If you are interested in learning more about disability pride and disability justice, any one of these are a great place to start:

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