Discovering Disability

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Earlier in the spring I spent some time reading Christine M. Smith’s “Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance.” As you track along in the book, there are a number of common themes that crop up as Smith discusses the plight of a variety of people that society pushes to the fringes:


This is the plight of those we, and our society oppress. And in this book, Smith focuses her attention on the following forms of oppression: Ageism, Classism, Handicappism, Heterosexism, Sexism, and White Racism.

Open your eyes.
Open your ears.
Walk to the margins.

This is the call that is constantly extended to us as Smith walks through these six forms of oppression.

But here’s a question. What if you can’t see? What if you can’t hear? What if you are not able to walk to the margins? What if, because of your eyes and ears, what if because of your hands or feet, what if, because of your physical or mental ability, society considers you handicapped?

The labels we as individuals, and we as society, construct for people do not, perhaps get to the depths of who people are. This could be why Smith turns to the term “differently abled,” rather than speaking of people as “handicapped” or “disabled.”

Our understanding of disability necessarily changes with context, according to SSDI claim denial lawyer. Smith writes:

A person who is blind in the context of a community where appropriate educational resources are provided, cannot see but has no handicap. When that same person seeks to attend a school in which there are no Braille learning materials, she or he may now be handicapped, not by disability, but by the environment and community that do not provide appropriate resources for adequate education.

So there’s the paradigm shift. There’s the alternative view. Perhaps someone who is blind is not necessarily handicapped merely because they cannot see, but rather, their handicap is actually the result of how a community responds to their differences in ability.

Earlier this week, I found myself challenged by this again in my work developing programs & events for young people. The question that came up, was how accessible and inclusive our current programs are for young people of different abilities.

It’s a good question. It’s a big and an important challenge that needs to be considered as we develop new programs and revamp the old ones

The challenge that Smith puts to us in her book is that:

The church needs to address its oppressive theology and its unwillingness to be an inclusive community at every level of its life.

This is certainly a tall order, and yet one that we, as people who affirm the goodness of God’s creation, as people who affirm that all life comes from God, as people who believe that God has created us in God’s own image, have to deal with.

We have to work beyond discrimination and denial into inclusiveness. But not just a loose affirmation that “all are welcome.” Rather, we need to be prepared to take up our cross.

I think it was liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who has said, that it is those who are privileged, it is those who have all the advantage that are called to pick up the cross. We are not called to inflict the cross upon others.

And yet sometimes, we try to force those with the most barriers to make the sacrifice.

“A bridge goes both ways,” an old friend often tells me. And this is true. But sometimes people need help crossing it. If they can’t see it. If it’s a dangerous bridge to cross, if it’s a bridge that leads to a place of possible discrimination, then we have to do more than lazily call out to them from the other side.

If it’s important that they be able to cross the bridge, then we need to reach out, and walk alongside them in solidarity and the pursuit of justice to make sure they get across safely.

It’s our job – it’s my job, it’s your job, and most especially the job of the Christian Church to seek out new ways to approach the question, to figure out how to communicate what it might mean to reach out beyond ourselves to someone or some group of people that (to be honest) we may not understand, but who deserve justice and mercy and love all the same. Smith continues:

Being handicapped is an experience of oppression that is the direct repercussion of living with a disability in a world that is unwilling to address the needs, gifts and very existence of people with disabilities.

So access is fine and good, but issues of acceptance and love are perhaps closer to the heart of the matter. And as children of God, creator, sustainer of all that lives, we must recognize those with different abilities as our people. If we are one body. If we are in God’s image, we have a lot of work to do.

And to do this, we need to once again listen to the voices of those who have suffered oppression, and embrace them in the arms of hospitality into our communities. And as we do so, it seems as though we will be much better equipped to work and to fight together for equality and justice in issues large and small.

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

2 Responses to “Discovering Disability”

  1. Randy

    Andrews observations are so true. I am now a privileged campus minister, working primarily with graduate students and faculty at an elite American university. But before this, I spent 6 years working with adults with developmental disabilities.

    I worked in their group home, helping them complete the tasks of life. I worked with adults who had lived in these homes their entire lives. One group was quite able to go out and work productively and bring home pay checks (when the economy was good). The other group needed assistance with feeding and bathing, and sometimes with walking.

    I learned from them every day that I worked with them. Seeing their happiness at the smallest things taught me about true, deep joy in ways that working with the able and privileged never did. Seeing them worship in their own personal ways in chapel revealed new aspects of the Spirit of God.

    This school year I am dealing with significant changes in my hearing loss, which makes meeting in groups a significant challenge. But I know that the Lord has called me here, and will show me a way through, because I have seen him show these others with much more profound disabilities than mine ways to love and serve him.


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