Webcast archive: Religion and disability

This week, we discuss the involvement and views of disabled people in organized religion.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • Religion and disability: a tense relationship
  • Three announcements

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.

  • This week, we’re talking about the often-uneasy relationship between organized religion and people with disabilities. Traditional structures, beliefs and attitudes of many religions clash with the social model of disability (based on rights and empowerment).  Such clashes can generate conflict when disability rights activists and people of faith work together to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia (AS/E). Taylor is very active in her (Catholic) church, and a discussion she prompted there last weekend inspired today’s topic.
  • The Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, arise from “Old Testament” texts that feature three major ideas related to disability:
    • As a punishment for bad behaviour, and a visible sign of a person’s moral failings;
    • As suffering (for disabled people, our loved ones, and our society), to be endured to purify the righteous; and
    • As objects of charity and a means for others to redeem themselves.
  • Disabled people are supposed to hope for the physical perfection that is promised in paradise, which we’ll receive as a reward for good behaviour in this life.  We should also welcome any opportunity to be healed while we’re still alive.
  • The notion of disability as punishment, or as a “lesson” for nondisabled observers, carries through to Christianity in the New Testament. This shows up in two ways:
    • First – inspiration porn, where a disabled person is praised and considered heroic for enduring the daily suffering that is disability, and “daring” to do everyday activities like shop for groceries or take the bus to work.
    • Second – disability is supposed to encourage non-disabled people to count their blessings; “there but for the grace of God go I.” This phrase means that, if it weren’t for divine intervention, the speaker would be in the same lousy circumstances as the (disabled) person they’re commenting on, and so should be grateful.
  • When disabled people become part of a conservative religious community, they are often perceived as unable to contribute. The only role they can play is the grateful recipient of blessings and favours. Even the common Christian idea of “ministering to” another person involves a service being done to them; regardless of how the person feels about it. The idea that help is only helpful if the person asks for it is rarely talked about in “ministry.” The notion that disabled people should be empowered to assert our own needs and act for ourselves flies in the face of our role as obedient “children” of God.
  • The spirit of inclusion is not always enough to prompt religious communities to open their doors to disabled members; many older buildings are not wheelchair accessible.  Churches, which are not obliged to comply with disability rights laws, often drag their feet on making access improvements, such as providing assistive listening systems for hearing impaired parishioners, braille prayer books, and wheelchair ramps.
  • In traditional Christian, Jewish and Islamic belief, in order to qualify for a religious vocation, the person had to be physically perfect. The active roles in the community (as priest, nun, monk, Imam, parent, or provider) are limited to those without disabilities.
  • The passive role of disabled people, combined with the patriarchal, authority-driven aspects of religion, also mean that the opinions of disabled people carry little weight, even in matters that affect us directly. For example, in Taylor’s congregation, the question recently arose: are we “disabled people” or do we have “physical, intellectual, and emotional challenges?” The objections of disabled parishioners to the euphemism “challenges” were not taken seriously by non-disabled leaders, who thought they knew better how disabled people should be identified.
  • Those who try to bridge the gap between the disability rights perspective and traditional religious views of disability have used three methods.  Some seek to reinterpret the religious texts so they make sense in today’s context, some simply reject the troublesome passages as irrelevant to modern times, and some look at the sacred writings as a product of their historical setting.
  • Another source of friction in the movement to oppose AS/E are the conservative policies and political views held by some religious communities. Issues that are important to the disability community, like access to health care or supports to enable people to live independently, are often ignored or dismissed by our “allies” in the struggle. As well, conservative politicians often engage in discrimination that disability activists find offensive, like opposing civil rights for LGBT people.
  • Tensions also arise when religious leaders refuse to recognize that secular and rights-based arguments (put forward by the disability community) are more effective in convincing the majority non-religious population than moral and theological positions. Instead, they rely on “sanctity of life” arguments that amount to preaching to the choir, and leave disabled people feeling silenced and disregarded yet again.
  • The aging of the religious constituency means there are fewer young people, and especially fewer young disabled community members to rebut outdated views of disability and offer alternatives. For example, some of the “stickiest” myths about autism are perpetuated by religious people: that autism is caused by vaccines, and that autism can and should be “cured.”
  • Fortunately, it’s not all bad news.
  • Whether they ignore, reinterpret or look at the sacred texts in their historical context, disabled theologians must re-define what disability means in all the world’s major religions.  Step one is to break the link between disability and sin, punishment, karma, suffering, and moral failing.  A new understanding of disability, characterized by mutual respect and a recognition of interdependence, must be adopted and proclaimed by all religious leaders, and acted upon in every religious community.


  • The webcast is going on its summer hiatus and will return on August 24.
  • Second, the minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Kristy Duncan, tabled Bill C-81, An Act to Ensure a Barrier-Free Canada, also known as the Accessible Canada Act on Wednesday.  We haven’t had time to evaluate the bill, watch for our commentary later in August.
  • Finally, the government of Canada released its third interim report on the assisted suicide/euthanasia program on Thursday.  The total number of people who’ve died under the program is 3,714, which seems a very large number.  We haven’t had time to go through the report either; we’ll tackle it in August as well.