Two news stories regarding people with disabilities appeared this week. Both of them made me stop and think. The first was about a woman who was seeking to pay surgeons to make her permanently physical disabled. The second was about a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts who believe they have unlocked the first step in turning off the 47th chromosome of Down syndrome. Both stories challenge our thinking on medical ethics, social integration, identity, anthropology, and ministry. What does it mean to be disabled? Is this a step that the biomedical sphere should engage in? Does the advances of medicine even contribute to our socially constructed ideas of disability?
Many people with late onset disability often wish they could return to their previous state – because they have knowledge of it. Those with lifetime disability have no frame of reference outside of disability and often will express the desire to remain with that particular disability. Both groups attempt to assimilate in culture all the same.
Perhaps the ladies request to become disabled is shocking because those of us who are not yet impaired cannot fathom a life devalued like that, never realizing that we are the ones that contribute to that very perception. Our minds quickly argue that she is in need of serious psychological healing.
Yet are we not the ones who require a cure? Perhaps if we developed meaningful relationships with and integrated people with disabilities into all aspects of our lives and friendships, this request would not even register in our consciousness – we would welcome her not matter what. Our problem is that of blindness. Sharon Betzer, author of Spirit and the Politics of Disablement neatly relates this optic problem with the story of the threatening man who became an unnoticed invalid with the wave of a white cane. The first picture invoked fear; the second was not even noticed. Neither of these reactions are appropriate.
It is no longer unfathomable to think that genetic science might provide clues to identity. While some (me included) appropriately wonder if we are crossing a line that belongs to God, we do so having already benefited from numerous technological and medical advances that crossed that same line years ago. We forget our own heritage. Yet my main concern does not lie in the fact that someday this might be possible and some may choose invasive corrective procedures. It rests in the fact that those who do not choose it may become further alienated and disfranchised.
Our calling as disability ministers remain clear – whatever choices people make, whatever identity they absorb as part of the bearer of Christ’s image, we are to prophetically gather all in one body to worship.