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Disability Inclusion

by Rev. Karen Sue Hybertsen, Ph.D.
Old South Haven Presbyterian Church
Brookhaven, New York

When I was in college, I was a Big Sister to a bright, cheerful, sixteen year-old named Beth who also was born deaf. She wanted to learn to ice skate, which is why I was matched with her. We got together regularly at the local ice rink. Beth’s parents early on had decided to mainstream Beth in the public schools. They also decided not to have her learn ASL, American Sign Language. Beth got good grades in school. All seemed well. That is until, in a parent-teacher conference, a teacher told them that Beth was “doing well for a deaf girl.” Her good grades were the result of teachers using a different scale, a deaf scale. Her parents were stunned. No teacher had ever before said, “for a deaf girl.”

Within weeks Beth was enrolled in a residential school for the deaf where the students were encouraged to excel. The last time I spoke to her parents they told me Beth was rapidly coming up to grade-level.

Her story illustrates the tendency of the “temporarily-abled” – that’s anybody who right this minute does not have any impairment – to discount people with disabilities. Consider this: the Census Bureau estimated in 2015 that 40 million people in the US had some form of disability. And nearly half over 75 qualify as disabled. Now consider that many people make that same casual assumption Beth’s teacher expressed. That a disability puts limits on what is possible. It puts the disabled in the category “other.” Or more bluntly, “there but for the grace of God.”

God, or our understanding of God as shaped by centuries of tradition and the biblical narrative, is right there in the mix when it comes to how we understand or misunderstand those we so easily label, “disabled.” Just a cursory look points to the way people with physical disabilities from blindness to lameness to leprosy were seen. Bear in mind here that “biblical leprosy” was not the Hansen’s disease of today, but, rather, almost any skin rash or even the mold or mildew on your walls or clothes. If you were ‘disabled’ then you would have been considered undesirable, impure, inhabited by evil spirits, an object of divine displeasure, a sinner. You would have had little value in society, almost no way to sustain yourself short of begging. Certainly no one thought that you had anything of value to contribute. It was, of course, more nuanced than that. But this broad glimpse helps remind us how biblical attitudes have and continue to contribute to our own understanding of the disabled among us.

That brings me to the story of Bartimeus. He is unusual on several fronts. First, he is, unlike many other “disabled,” brought to Jesus in the thick of it. He doesn’t rely on friends to guide him. He doesn’t sit there passively. He shouts and shouts and calls Jesus, “Son of David.” And he won’t be shut up because he is inconvenient or unworthy of notice. Second, he has a name, although other gospel writers who tell his story take it away. His name says he matters.

He reminds me of a man named Chris whom I met when I was leading a self-study for a church. He was blinded three years before I met him. So, in many ways he was still getting used to living in the dark. And because he was able to see well into his thirties, he knew what he was “missing.” And he was shouting about it. The night I met him his point was that he couldn’t participate fully because he couldn’t read the handout. He went on to talk about the many ways Sunday worship excluded him. Largely because it was assumed that everyone could see. And if your eyes were a bit dim well there was the large print bulletin. But none of that mattered if you couldn’t see at all. His real point though was that unless he spoke up nobody noticed.

Chris didn’t much like biblical stories like that of Bartimeus, either. Sure Jesus restored Bartimeus’ sight. But what earthly good, he asked, did that do him? Jesus wasn’t around after all. In addition, he had discovered that most interpretations linked Bartimeus’ blindness to the inability of Jesus’ disciples to truly see Jesus. Whereas blind Bartimeus could see him and, physical sight restored, leaps up and chooses to follow after Jesus. The story wasn’t really about living blind; it was all about seeing.

And that makes me reconsider what we are about when we mark a day, in our Presbyterian Planning Calendar, “Disability Inclusion Sunday.” What is the point? Are we inadvertently saying we don’t include you the other 51 Sundays of the Year if you are disabled? Are we suggesting that if you have trouble seeing, walking, hearing, understanding or any other limitation that you are in a special category? And what is suggested with the selection of Baritmeus’ story as the text for this Sunday? Do we expect you to shout to get our attention if you are blind, in a wheelchair, need a hearing aid, the list goes on?

Why do we mark this day? I took a look on the Presbyterian Mission web-site. The first thing I found was an out-of-date reminder that Disability Inclusion Sunday was on May 28 (that would have been in 2017). Not to read too much into this but it made me wonder. Putting that aside, here is what the site had to say:

Every Sunday should be Disability Inclusion Sunday. “Oftentimes,
people with disabilities are overlooked. They should be looked at
as gifts and not be pitied. The disability doesn’t define them. They
are a person . . .made in God’s image. Quite often folks with
disabilities are looked on with pity or in need of charity. But that’s
not what we are about. We are about including everyone in the life
of the church.”[i]

And that brings me to the moment Bartimeus got Jesus’ attention. Overriding all the people who told him keep quiet, to keep in his place. Jesus asks him a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimeus’ answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” It’s a simple, straightforward exchange. Jesus restores his sight and says go your faith has made you well.

It seems to me that this exchange gives us a road map for inclusion. And not simply for the “disabled” in our midst but for anyone seeking to join our community. What can we do for you? What hinders your participation? What do you need to be able to fully be a part of the community? But I hope and trust that people won’t have to shout like Bartimeus. That you won’t have to remind folks that you can’t see the handout. That you won’t be seen as less able to be a full part of the community. That you won’t be excluded, period. That we will be paying enough attention to ask people what they need and to respect their answers. For each and every one of us, temporarily-abled and disabled alike, is wondrously made in God’s image.

Amen

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