Disability: ‘Us’ not ‘Them’

11 July 2019


An unfortunate reality of our society is that people with a disability often face discrimination; that having an impairment means you are ‘abnormal’, a medical problem to be solved.

However, on the other side of the coin is the ‘social’ view of disability: it is the barriers placed by society, rather than some feature of a person’s body or mind, that are the ‘problem’.

In the latest Catholic Social Justice Series paper, ‘Us’ not ‘Them’: Disability and Catholic Theology and Social Teaching, Justin Glyn SJ shares his experience of physical impairment and explains how it is the interaction of impairment with the social and physical environment that produces disability.

“One of the ways in which we too often fail to respect the dignity of people, and of whole groups of people, is to talk about them, rather than with them,” writes the Bishops’ Delegate for Social Justice, Bishop Terry Brady, in his foreword to the paper.

“We make ‘them’ into an object of discussion or a problem to be solved. Often we reduce ‘them’ to a characteristic, such as race or gender or impairment, which distinguishes ‘them’ from ‘us’.

“Such ‘othering’ denies the unity of the human family: we are all children of the one God, all equally created in the image and likeness of God.

“In the case of impairment, it also denies the reality that we are all limited and, over a full life span, likely to experience impairment.”

Bishop Brady says the paper offers an invitation to dialogue about disability by first listening to a person living with disability. Fr Glyn shares his experience of sight impairment and explains how disability is socially constructed; the result of “structures of sin”.

“It follows that we can respond by trying to build social and physical structures that might better mediate grace, facilitating life to the full for all of us,” writes Bishop Brady.

“The reality of impairment and disability has implications for our theology. Unfortunately, as Justin demonstrates, Catholic theology has not always been informed by the experience of people with disability, and it has at times displayed some muddled thinking about sin and grace.

“Justin also describes progress towards a more appropriate theology of disability that more effectively honours the personhood of people living with disability. His reflections challenge us to examine our own implicit theologies of disability.”

In ‘Us’ not ‘Them’, Fr Glyn notes that the “rhetoric of inclusion” adopted by governments and others has masked the disappointing reality that in 2015 Australia ranked 21 out of 29 in the OECD for employment of people with a disability.

“Only 53 per cent of working-aged persons with a disability were employed compared with 83 per cent of all working-aged people,” Fr Glyn writes.

Disability was the largest category of complaints of discrimination before the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In 2018, school funding from the Federal Government for people with disabilities was cut by up to 46 per cent in some states. The Disability Employment Service, which helps people with an intellectual disability into work, had its funding cut by 31 per cent over the same period.

And unfortunately, while the Church has a long and generous theology and history of social teaching, it has not always spoken clearly on the rights of people with disabilities.

“This has been more a result of theological confusion than malice,” Fr Glyn writes.

“The theology of disability has been muddled by the fact that very few people with disabilities have been involved in forming that theology – particularly in the Catholic world. As a result, our lived experience has not really formed part of the Church’s self-understanding.”

Fr Glyn points out that until the current pontificate, Church statements on the theology of disability tended to move uneasily between two uncomfortable poles.

“The first pole saw disability as a result of original sin … the image of God was, through the power of original sin, ‘dimmed’ though not eliminated in people with disabilities.

“The second pole claimed that, far from being signs of human sinfulness, people with disability were blessed above all others with the grace of suffering for all.

“Neither of these poles matches the lived experience of most of us who actually experience life with a disability.

“Disability comes in all shapes and sizes. Some people who experience it may never be able to venture beyond a tightly controlled environment. Others may be Olympic athletes or world-famous scientists. Some, indeed, may be both: incredibly gifted and at the same time have need for intensive support in other areas which many people take for granted.

“We are neither especially sinful nor especially virtuous. Our lives are as diverse as those of people not commonly thought of as having a disability.”

Fr Glyn explores the way recent trends in Catholic theology and social teaching offer firmer ground on which to talk to the Church and the world at large about disability.

“In short, how do we get beyond the mere rhetoric of inclusion to a true realisation that people with obvious disabilities, and people without, are all ‘us’ rather than ‘them’?”

Fr Glyn argues that identifying the person wholly with their disability and insisting that any ill-effects or marginalisation that person suffers is either a miraculous sign or will be healed eventually on the Last Day not only denies their worth as individuals but also avoids doing anything to support the person now.

“Whether they are cursed or blessed, the inevitable conclusion is that it was always meant to be this way and nothing anybody else can do can make a difference. On either view, therefore, society can then wash its hands of these poor ‘unfortunates’ or ‘angels’ and ignore the fact that it is its own structures and choices which marginalise them.

“The disabled” or “the sick” or “the injured” are not a separate group. “While we may not wish to face it – and it is not a fact much emphasised in our liturgical practice or theological discussions – it is an uncomfortable truth that sickness, injury and impairment are all essential elements of the human condition.

“Everyone is born with limited capacities – unable to walk, incontinent, with low vision and without speech or reasoning, for example – and, if they live long enough, they will inevitably experience an impairment in their physical or mental capacity. Christ’s solidarity with the impaired is inevitably about ‘us’, not ‘them’.”

Catholic Social Justice Series No 83, ‘Us’ not ‘Them’: Disability and Catholic Theology and Social Teaching, by Justin Glyn SJ, is available from the Office for Social Justice, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Republished with permission from the Office for Social Justice, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.


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