As people of God, and followers of Jesus, we are always called to act. In his article, Fractured Images, Father Donald Senior states, “The more different pieces you have there, together in the assembly, the more sacred it is. That way no beauty or truth is excluded.” How must we work together to create a space where the different pieces of God’s assembly can come together to experience God? How must we look beyond mere physical access to welcome disabled people in creative, imaginative ways, such as the full utilization of online technology? How must our songs and homilies affirm and center disabled identities so that disabled people are valued and not marginalized? How must we encounter disabled people, not as simplistically flawed or divinely special, but as ordinary humans, trying to live and survive in a world that often marginalizes and erases our very existence?
A foundational way to prioritize disabled perspectives is to familiarize yourself with disability theology and culture. If disabled people are part of God’s assembly, so are our theologies and cultures. For my final post with GIA, I’ve compiled a list of my go-to materials, that to me, represent disability theology and culture. I hope these rich materials will spur you to action, not merely to invite a disabled person to yet another program or event, or to look for a formula or shortcut, but to acknowledge within your being that disabled bodies are formed in the image of God and are therefore essential to the very fabric of our religious and church communities. If we proclaim and commit to this belief within ourselves and our faith communities, holy, consistent, and communal actions will follow.
This is obviously a very small sampling of disability resources. There is so much more out there. The best way to learn about disability is to seek out material from people with lived disabled experiences.
Crip Camp. This fun and enjoyable documentary tells the story of how a 1960s summer camp of young adult activists empowered their personal disabled identities and spawned the beginning of the Disability Rights movement in the United States. These leaders have become disability rights icons and were instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The Work of Alice Wong. Alice Wong is a prolific disability rights activist and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, “an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.” In her book, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century, Wong compiles stories from disabled women of color. Each of these first-person stories of ordinary disabled people are profound, vulnerable, challenging, and beautiful. Wong also has an active social media presence on Twitter and Instagram.
The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiesland. I have referenced this work many times. Published by disabled theologian Nancy Eiesland in 1994, this book is considered the first text of disabled theology. Eiesland emphasizes that disabled people are not merely individuals, but a minority group that the church has traditionally marginalized. She contends that Jesus was disabled by the wounds of crucifixion and that Christians must understand “the Disabled God.”
ADAPT. ADAPT is one of the world’s first disability rights activist groups. It was founded in 1978 to protest the lack of accessible buses and transportation in Denver Colorado and is still going strong today. In this segment, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow provides a good overview of ADAPT’s history and continued activism today. This segment originally aired in 2017 when some politicians attempted to strip Medicaid and healthcare from people with disabilities. Thanks to the tireless work of disability activists, who literally put their bodies on the line, these healthcare cuts did not happen.
Josh Blue. Josh Blue is an award-winning comedian with cerebral palsy.” I find his routines to be very funny and appreciate his way of bringing out the fun and absurdity, and ordinariness of life with a disability.
Autistic Self Advocacy Network. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a national disability rights advocacy organization run by and for autistic people. They assert that “that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities.”
The Poetry of Laura Hershey. Laura Hershey was a disabled writer, activist, and poet. Hershey’s poetry always brings out disabled beauty and profoundly encapsulates disability culture. I’d like to conclude with Hershey’s poem, A Day. I read this poem often because it grounds me and gives me the strength and sustenance to continue as a disability rights activist for the church and the world.
(for Robin Stephens)
A day, Robin.
Just one single day out of the future
we hope we are building.
That’s what I’d give you, Robin,
give us both, if I could.
Let’s make it a Saturday, and let’s
arrange to be in the same state
when it happens. One day; our day.
A morning in thick down, embroidered blue, brown,
like our eyes opening.
A morning waking slowly—taking our time
to get into our chairs, and get the motors going
with no demonstrations to prepare for,
because justice demonstrates itself these days;
which have mostly been replaced
by simple understanding;
not even a conference to attend,
because issues like caregiver abuse
and work disincentives
were settled long ago.
I’d give us
a quiet afternoon among trees, Robin,
our talk touching on cloudshapes, goddesses,
sit-skiing and song—
not on grantwriting, boards of directors,
pending legislation, mandatory access—
because in our rich, related memories,
I’d give us a monument:
the words we helped to write—
now carved in granite!
Perhaps we’d go to see it, riding downtown in a city bus
that we don’t have to commandeer.
Or we’d take poles to a mountain river.
Fish surface as rain begins to fall. Huddled together
in the rain, we draw out enough rainbow
to satisfy two
stomachs and two clear minds.
Robin, the sun moves across the sky like this every day.
Watch it with me this one day.
Watch it settle into the Rockies.
And with this clear golden view
of the whole city, let’s plan our evening.
I want to give us a night on the town—
yeah a night on the town!
All the hot spots and the spots
we’ll heat up.
The full moon glides us
through doors opening wide to roomy tables
and rose-shaded drinks.
Large level floors rock with our dancing.
Lines form to ask for the next one
and the next one and the next one and all night long
we don’t educate anybody
that was taken care of in the last generation.
Returning home just before star-fade,
we might think into the past. We might wonder
how we carried our campaigns
into every hour;
how we poured effort, like water
down the dry throats of our sisters and brothers,
then pumped a little more
And the deeper wonder:
how in the flying noise
of the days we remember living,
to know each other.
—Laura Hershey (1987)
Whatever your vocation, I hope you will join me in creating days like Laura Hershey dreams of and Jesus calls us to create. Thank you to Kate Williams and the entire GIA staff for putting beliefs into practice, by actively working to make liturgies more prayerful, inclusive, meaningful, and accessible to each and every person. I can’t wait to collaborate with you further to continue to cultivate the intersections of disability theology and music and liturgy. Thanks for reading!
Image description: A photo of David Gayes, a smiling white man in a wheelchair and blue shirt. Trees are in the background.
David Gayes is a graduate student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, working on a masters degree in Intercultural Ministry and delving more deeply into the relationship between disability culture and disability theology. Through writing and dialogue, he invites the GIA community to engage with lived disabled experiences and perspectives in thought-provoking ways. David is also a Disability Lead Fellow, and an active member of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, Illinois.