Please excuse the long absence. We spent two weeks in Iowa helping/loving/cooing-over my sis- and bro-in-laws triplet (!) girls. Then it was back home to plunge into a new summer Sunday school curriculum, complete with the joy of too few volunteers and too many kids. The next day I was off to Gettysburg for Lutheran Theological Seminary’s Summer Institute opening day conference on Theology and Disability.
I often think that disability theology is much more of a family than a discipline. For one, there aren’t that many people doing it. And when you finally get down to the fine tuning of who’s actually doing social theory and who’s actually doing theology, you end up with an even smaller group of folks. Throw in another condition, like those who deal specifically with cognitive disabilities, and we’re down to a handful.
It’s also a much more congenial group than say Continental Philosophy or Barthian Studies. This is due, in large part, to the fact that you can’t get around the presence of practitioners at gatherings like these. And that means you’re always accountable for real people at the end of the day. To a tee, every person at these disability theology conferences is deeply invested in the flourishing of the disabled, many because of personal experience and investment in the life or lives of those living with a disability. Because so much of this investment is live experience you also happen to be gathered with a group of people who know full well the patience and humility that it takes to walk beside those who don’t keep the pace of the world.
What I find particularly interesting about conferences in the realm of theology of disability is the overwhelming contigency that confronts me in the field of disability theory. When we really get down to it, what does non-hearing have to do at with spina bifida or Down syndrome? At times it feels almost silly to have papers on the independently-minded, socially active minority subculture of deafness on the one hand and the experience of the severely congnitively disabled on the other. At other times, when the topics of universal human flourishing and the cult of normalcy appears, it makes perfect sense.
After the conference I thought about importance this contingency, the inability to adequately give name and place to what’s happening in the lives of those who find themselves marginalized by their vulnerability and the perception of weakness. Talal Asad writes in Genealogies of Religion how dominant power “has worked best through differentiating and classifying practices.” So it was refreshing to see a presentation on mental illness, what I consider by far the closest experience in the human condition to a life-long intellectual disability. And while it felt like an apple to my orange, I can appreciate the pause of working through the connections between normalization theory and what is being written of in the field of cognitive disability.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the field needs to become a free for all. We still need to be able to talk about what we’re talking about. We should be open to a constant reformation of thought about what constitutes disability. I come back to the misnomer of this term, one that clearly ushers from the minds of the “temporarily able-bodied.” We hear again and again that the deaf don’t consider themselves disabled, they only communicate differently (with their hands). So why keep perpetuating papers like Peggy Johnson’s?: “There’s nothing wrong with my ears. I just can’t hear!” Hans Reinders spoke about the direction of the field and mentioned a turn towards the theological exploration of vulnerability. While two hundred, maybe even a hundred years ago blindness or deafness certainly would have fit into the rubric of vulnerableness this is less and less the case. Maybe in a hundred years we will say the same thing for Down syndrome or cerebal palsy. Or maybe the culture will move in the other direction. But at this point there are a number of other groups and topics that need to considered within theology of disability: eugenics and the unborn, mental illness, the lives of children at risk, and to some extent creation care. Here’s the condition I see present: vulnerability hinges on the presence of a suppressed will, the inability to provide care, advocacy, decision-making or a sense of being outside of a community or individual with whom life is made flourishing.
Amy Julia Becker was also in attendance and she provides comments on her reactions to the conference over at Thin Places.