Vulnerable Humanity: Disability and Community Beyond 'Normalcy' - Thomas E. Reynolds
I cringed as he told his story. Speaking to a group of about 20 attentive listeners was an articulate, compassionate, and successful businessman in his early 60's, quietly recalling his public rejection by a priest. Some years ago, as he approached a church altar for communion during worship, a priest singled him out, exclaiming loudly and with disgust, "We don't serve drunks here!" True, this man talks with slurred speech and moves with a jolted gait. Yet he does not drink. He has cerebral palsy.
This story unsettles easy assurances. It exemplifies how we can misunderstand someone and exclude him or her on the basis of that misunderstanding. While the implications extend far beyond disability, in the case of this man, the rejection began there, ironically in the very place where one would expect inclusion and acceptance to prevail. Of all places, Jennie Weiss Block notes, the church should be a model of the "accessible community," a point of entry into God's love radiating through the lives of its participants. Ideally, "the Body of Christ presumes a place for everyone.”1 However, "place" is difficult for persons with disabilities. Too often they encounter a threshold that signals "access denied"— whether physical, behavioral, or attitudinal. This is tragic for both those with and those without disabilities, for specific kinds of people are rendered "helpless" or "deficient" in some way(s) by others. On this basis they are excluded from participation, which diminishes their genuine humanity. Also diminished are church communities themselves, as disabling principalities and powers come to obscure how people with disabilities can and do make real contributions to their communities, which thwarts the redemptive work of God. So it becomes important to reflect theologically on how Christians might think about and act differently toward persons with disabilities.
It does not take much to recognize that serious problems accompany Christian language about God and God's love when applied to disability. After all, encountering disability challenges the assumptions by which non-disabled people find order and meaning in the world. In order to uphold these assumptions, believers almost automatically defer to notions that imply that God somehow “causes" disability — for example, as a curse or punishment, a “cross to bear," an opportunity for God to “heal," a way for non-disabled people to demonstrate charity, a kind of moral lesson for non-disabled people (“there but for the grace of God go I"), or a spiritual lesson (“those people are so childlike and open to God").2 Even though these kinds of responses can be found in biblical texts, they trade upon a bogus way of representing disability. Namely, that disability is not "normal" (abnormal), that it displays something different than what the “standard" human body should, a stigma marking a deviance considered deficient. But what is normal? And what constitutes a disability?
Nancy Eiesland describes disability as the consequence of impairment, that is, an inability to perform some task or activity considered necessary within a social environment.3 This makes disability, to a large degree, a social construct. Disability represents a diminishment relative to a context of valuation and its conventions, a lack of ability to function in ways considered valuable to a group. In this way, as disability theorist Lennard Davis describes, disability and normalcy are part of the same system.4 Impairment does not necessarily mean disability. For example, visual impairment in today's world is not considered a disabling condition, but needing a wheelchair or medication for bipolar disorder is. Why the difference? Because certain conventions have become status quo, constructing what is “normal" and thereby creating the difference between bodies that are “able" and those that are “disabled." There is more at stake, then, in the matter of disability than an impairment that someone happens to have. For society disables people by representing impairment as a flaw. But if we grant that the “normal" is a standard that is socially constructed, we are brought to recognize that it can also be critiqued and de-constructed. The basis for this, I believe, lies in something all human beings share: vulnerability. It is an inescapable fact that we are born, live our lives, and then die as vulnerable creatures needing each other, not just to survive as helpless infants, but also to grow and come to flourish as subjects of our own experience, eventually dying in the care of others, helpless before our mortality. Such vulnerability binds us together with those who accompany us. Highlighting this theme, therefore, is essential because it provides a way into more vigorously acknowledging and experiencing our deep connecting points with one another, points that indicate a basic web of mutual dependence, but which all too often become cloaked by the exchange values that animate human communities under the sway of what Stanley Hauerwas calls “the tyranny of normality."5
So rather than ability — for example, the capacity to think rationally, act autonomously, look healthy, or produce and purchase things as self-interested consumers — it is human vulnerability that is a starting point for discovering what we share in our differences, a source bearing the precious and fragile grace of solidarity with one another. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, a network of communities for intellectually disabled people, sums it up eloquently: “We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging."6
Viewed through the lens of basic vulnerability, neediness or lack of ability is not a flaw detracting from an otherwise pure and complete human nature. Rather, it is testimony to the fact that we receive our existence from each other. And recognizing this is a source of relational openness to others, who are in turn similarly constituted. Genuine wholeness is found not through ability but through an acknowledgment of vulnerability that is made concrete in relations of mutual giving to and receiving from others.
This notion is difficult and painful to process under the sway of dominant social conventions; it runs counter to the common assumption that value is based upon power and ability. We suppose that our identity, our worth, derives from the power of completeness, a capacity to be independent and self-initiating, able to control our bodies in the face of others and thus be recognized as contributing to the group. The irony is, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “our neediness is also the source of our greatest strength, for our need requires the cooperation and love of others from which derives our ability not only to live but to flourish."7 Living out of this reality is a source of genuine good, for it entails helping others—in their "disability" — as essential not only to our own flourishing but also to the common good of the community in which we flourish.
Yet neediness is a difficult reality to accept. For it means recognizing that we are at the core exposed to imperilment and suffering, contingent and incomplete beings who need to belong to become ourselves.8 Indeed, we do suffer. Vanier observes: “Weakness is at the heart of the need to belong; weakness that we may fear, because we have been hurt."9 Fearful of being wounded, we often attempt to cover our vulnerability, protecting it by denying our dependence upon others. The irony in this, however, is that belonging is inescapable. We become who we are through community. But in the modality of fear, belonging becomes a false means to assure ourselves of strength and completeness. For we presume that security entails conforming to the projected strength of others, bolstered by the conventions of society and its power mechanisms. It is as though acquiescing to the status quo offers protection by rendering us immune to contingency and its perils.
Such pretense is what fuels efforts to build protective walls around the "normal" and classify certain anomalies as “abnormal." We thereby come to judge the different and strange — that which does not fit into the ordered scheme of things — according to our fears. In a state of insecurity, we hunt for a scapegoat for our fear, someone or something to turn into the object of fear, and then contempt.10 The different is frightening because it mirrors our own weakness and vulnerability. It ruptures conventions of normalcy and forces us to acknowledge that which we shun and seek immunity against: inability, incompleteness, and neediness. Hence, disability is considered a weakness because it concretely reveals to us what we shun in ourselves: weakness.11 Often the cement that binds a group together is cast over the sense of vulnerability that preoccupies its constituents. And this is a moral failure. Not only does it lead to representing vulnerability as a flaw, it also seeks to objectify such flaws as an attribute of the other who is different. By projecting our own fear of vulnerability onto another, we become cut off from the wellspring of our own flourishing: mutual dependence. We deny the other, and so, ourselves.
Our efforts to suppress it notwithstanding, mutual dependence is primary. It is the fulcrum from which we emerge as persons. It elicits a fundamental sense of wholeness that, even as we conceal it, rises here and there like grass through asphalt, captivating our attention. Vanier explains why: “Weakness carries within it a secret power. The cry and the trust that flow from weakness can open up hearts."12 The vulnerability of another is a window into our own vulnerability, evoking a sympathetic relation that eludes the tyranny of the normal, sweeping under the radar of conventional economies of value exchange. In this way, Vanier suggests that those who embody weakness and are considered “nobodies" in a society — i.e., people who exhibit disabilities — “have profound lessons to teach us."13 They invite us to move out from behind closed walls of false security and exclusion to acknowledge and accept our vulnerability. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann confirms the point in stating, “A person with disabilities gives others the precious insight into the woundedness and weakness of human life."14 Disability is a profound symbol of human brokenness, not as a flaw but as a pervasive condition.15 Of course, we can suppress or deny our weakness, fleeing from it by pushing away those others whose difference overtly exhibits it as something we deem ugly or dirty or deficient. But by doing this we shun what is perhaps most human about us — the need to belong and be recognized as of value.
There is, in the end, no hard and fast line between ability and disability, but rather a nexus of reciprocity that is based in our vulnerable humanity. All of life comes to us as a gift, an endowment that is received in countless ways from others throughout our lifetime. When we acknowledge this, the line between giving and receiving, ability and disability, begins to blur. Moltmann goes so far as to state: “There is no differentiation between the healthy and those with disabilities. For every human life has its limitations, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. We are born needy, and we die helpless. It is only the ideals of health of a society of the strong which condemn a part of humanity to being 'disabled.'"16 Conversely, having a disability is not equivalent to being ill or sick, needing a cure. Disability does not define a person.
Full personhood is neither diminished by disability nor confirmed by ability. Instead, it is a factor of the interdependent relationships we share with one another as creatures loved into being by God and in the image of God. There is a wider horizon in which all persons in their uniqueness and vulnerability coexist within the enfolding presence of a gracious God. Again, Moltmann notes, a "person with disabilities gives others the precious insight into the woundedness and weakness of human life. But a person with disabilities also gives insight into the humanity of his own world. Through persons with disabilities, other people can come to know the real, suffering, living God, who also loves them infinitely."17 Reflecting on his own work, Vanier suggests something similar, namely, that those with disabilities call us into acknowledging our own human weaknesses and thus open us up more radically to God's grace.18
To exist as a finite creature is to be vulnerable. And, speaking theologically, it is precisely such vulnerability that God embraces in Christ, entering fully into the frailty of the human condition, even unto a tragic death. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Sharing the divine self in this way sends a distinct message: God is in solidarity with humanity at its most fundamental level, in weakness and brokenness. Here, God reveals the divine nature as compassion not only by “undergoing" or “suffering with" human vulnerability, but also by raising it up into God's own being. Redemption, then, is a welcoming, a divine act of hospitality. It does not negate vulnerability by making humans invulnerable and perfectly whole. Nancy Eiesland notes this by calling our attention to the fact that Jesus' body remains scarred after his resurrection.19 So instead of doing away with the capacity to suffer, redemption transforms vulnerability into a communion with God, prefiguring the final horizon to come when all things will become so transformed.
So I come to the conclusion that disability is tragically but redemptively fundamental. It is tragic because it entails real suffering, which in many cases is caused by society — even by our churches, to recall the case of the man who was rejected at the communion table. Disability is redemptive because it opens up our human vulnerability and dependence upon each other and God. This gets to the heart of Paul's proclamation in 2 Corinthians 12 that God's power is made “complete" and perfected in weakness. And it has dramatic implications for living together, for wholeness is not self-sufficiency. Rather, it is the genuinely inclusive communion that results from sharing our vulnerable humanity with one another in light of the grace of God. Would it not be appropriate, then, to open the table fellowship of communion to all God's children, sharing the inclusive love of God without representing some people as "abled" and others as "disabled"? Of course, this would mean taking a hard look at the humanity we all share, and adopting a radically new understanding of what it means for us to be truly human.