Being ‘disabled’ is a kind way of referring to those who have either congenital defects or are somehow less than ‘normal’ because of accidents, abuse, or self-inflicted causes.
In 2012 the journal Christian Reflections: A series in faith and ethics (Baylor University), devoted an issue to the theme of ‘Disability’ and authors wrote on matters such as the shortness of Zacchaeus, the cult of normalcy, disability in Christian art and ‘the lure of eugenics’.
We have all had experiences with those that are disabled, perhaps within our family, or even ourselves. A question naturally arises: How do we view the disabled? Not being ‘normal’, is it best to hide them in the back bedroom, place them in a ‘home’, or in some other manner not have to deal with them?
These are dark thoughts and most Christians would immediately reply that it is our duty to treat such people as equals, even if they are not physically or mentally average or typical of our community. But how do we treat, for example, the deaf, dumb, blind and lame? Or those with low IQs and Down’s disease? Are they a part of our congregation or circle of friends?
Coupled with these thoughts, we should consider those who deliberately change their appearance with body piercings, tattoos, sex orientation, and hair styles that are outside of our comfort zones.
In the NT Jesus heals people with disabilities: paralytics, demon possessed people, the blind, a deaf-mute, people with skin diseases, a woman with severe bleeding, withered hands, and so on. However, he doesn’t make Zacchaeus suddenly grow taller or make Peter have a ‘gentle’ spirit. Certain physical and psychological or mental attributes were dealt with differently. In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus invited himself for a meal; in an incident with Peter, he allowed him to walk on water (for a short distance) and in the event of Paul’s conversion, he made him blind for a while and let someone else heal him.
The Kewa people of Papua New Guinea, with whom we lived for a number of years, had names for disabled people, not all of whom were physically incapacitated. A blind person might be referred to as one who had ‘eyes thrown away’, ‘the eyes sewn shut’ or with ‘darkness in the eyes’, Of course there were also descriptions of those who lost an eye in fighting, were blinded by the sun (usually temporarily), blind in one eye, partially blind, and so on; those who were deaf had ‘ears plugged or shut’ or ‘ear sickness’. And there was no shortage of describing people as having large ears, drooping ears, long ears or cut-off ears—none of them complimentary images.
In English we likewise have idioms for the ear and eye that are not complimentary: ‘to have nothing between the ears’ (to be stupid), to have something ‘go in one ear and out the other’ (information quickly forgotten), ‘talk someone’s ears off’ or to refer to someone who is ‘still wet behind the ears’ (young and inexperienced).
The eyes don’t fare much better: we can ‘catch (someone’s) eye’ (get their attention), ‘cry our eyes out’ (loudly and long) and ‘look at someone cross-eyed’ (probably making them angry). And we can disparagingly refer to someone who wears glasses as having ‘four eyes’.
The Baylor journal also has an article on ‘normalcy’ and I close with a quote from it: “Disability plays a crucial prophetic role in exposing the social pretensions of the ‘normal.’ It invites us to see our humanity as vulnerable gifts of God to be received by each other in relationships of mutual giving and receiving” (p.27).