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Disability Workshop for Adults: Theology and Disability
Disability Workshop for Adults: Theology and Disability
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview

Audience

People interested in theology.

Introduction

Theologies differ in their understanding of the meaning of disability.  This workshop invites us to reflect on ways some theologies across religious traditions tend to exclude people with disabilities, while others are more inclusive. Participants are invited to reflect on their own theology and how it does and doesn’t frame their attitudes about disability.

Goals and Learning Objectives

  • To explore and understand theology and how it can tend to exclude or include people with disabilities from religious community;
  • To discuss what Unitarian Universalism contributes to an understanding of the meaning of disability;
  • To reflect on our own theologies of disability.

Materials and Handouts

You will need a chalice, and a flipchart and markers or other way to post for the group.

Parts of this workshop are designed for journaling. Provide paper for participants. Also, provide a journaling alternative—a quiet space where someone may dictate if they have their own technology or to dictate in confidence to a facilitator, for example.

Preparation

  • Review
  • Read over the lesson and explore the suggested readings.  Decide how you might want to alter or augment the workshop with some of the knowledge you have picked up in these readings.  You may want to add in some specific discussion questions having to do with disabilities in your congregation.  For example, if you have children with developmental disabilities in your RE program, you may want to add in some questions having to do with developmental disability.
  • You may want to make a handout of the additional resources for people who want to do independent reading, or to send via email to the participants, after the workshop.

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using the following focus questions:

  • Throughout history, there have been theological arguments that disabilities are a punishment from God.  What do you think this meant in the lives of people who were disabled? 
  • How does your personal theology differ from that of these prior historical times?  How would you articulate this part of your theology to others?

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering

Chalice Lighting

We kindle this light in the chalice of our community, that ours may be a house where we may each be who we are.

Opening Reading

“Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?”

― Martin Buber

Activities

Part I: Commonly Held Exclusionary Theological Views of Disability (45 minutes)

Introduce Part I of the workshop with these or similar words:

Most theological traditions have, at times, explained disability in ways that have alienated or dehumanized people with disabilities.     

Activity 1: Disability as Punishment (10 minutes)

Introduce the Activity with these or similar words:

One commonly held theological viewpoint is that disability is a punishment or a consequence of some failure on the part of the person with a disability, or their ancestor.  Some Buddhists have explained disability as a result of some action in a previous lifetime.  Some Humanists have explained disability as the result of not eating the right foods or following the right advice.  Some Christians have explained disability as God’s punishment for your sins, or for your parents’ sins.

Ask the participants to turn to someone sitting near them and respond to the following prompt (allow 5 minutes):

  • Can you think of examples when you have heard a theological explanation of disability as a consequence of bad behavior?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite people to share, and record their responses.

Activity 2: Disability as a Lesson or Opportunity for Others (10 minutes)

Introduce the Activity with these or similar words:

Another commonly held theological viewpoint is that someone with a disability is there for the benefit of other people’s spiritual journeys.  Some Muslims have responded to seeing someone with a disability by praying for them while at the same time thanking God for being free of disabilities.  Some Jews have responded to people with a disability as an opportunity to perform an act of charity.

Ask the participants to turn to someone sitting near them and respond to the following prompt (allow 5 minutes):

  • Can you think of examples when you have heard a theological explanation of disability as an opportunity for someone else’s spiritual journey?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite people to share, and record their responses.

Activity 3: What is the Impact? (20 minutes)

Divide the participants into groups, so that you have no more than 5 groups.  Ask each group to discuss the following prompts:

  • What place do these views give people with disabilities in the religious community?
  • What messages do these viewpoints send about disability to people with disabilities? To people who don’t have disabilities? To the community?
  • What do these viewpoints tell us about what it means to be human?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite groups to share, and record their responses.

Part II: Developing Inclusionary Theological Views of Disability (45 minutes)

Activity 4: Theologies of a Disabled God (10 minutes)

Among those whose theology includes a personal God, some other viewpoints of disability are emerging.  One focuses on the risen Christ who bears wounds that don’t heal.  Another builds from the idea that we are all made in God’s image, suggesting God must be blind, deaf, autistic, paraplegic, bipolar, and manifest every facet of the full spectrum of human diversity.

Ask the participants to turn to someone sitting near them and respond to the following prompt (allow 5 minutes):

  • What is it like to imagine God as both powerful and disabled?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite people to share, and record their responses.

Activity 5: Theologies of Interdependence (10 minutes)

Some theologies focus on interconnection among people and with the universe.  If there is a notion of God, God is included in the interconnection not separate from it.  Often, these views emphasize that everyone has a place or a part to play.

Ask the participants to turn to someone sitting near them and respond to the following prompt (allow 5 minutes):

  • How could a theology of interconnection help calm fears of dependence often associated with fear of disability by people without disabilities?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite people to share, and record their responses.

Activity 6: What is the Impact? (20 minutes)

Divide the participants into groups, so that you have no more than 5 groups.  Ask each group to discuss the following prompts:

  • What place do these views give people with disabilities in the religious community?
  • What messages do these viewpoints send about disability to people with disabilities? To people who don’t have disabilities? To the community?
  • What do these viewpoints tell us about what it means to be human?

Gather the larger group together again. Invite groups to share, and record their responses.

Part III: Bringing it back home (30 minutes)

Pose these questions to the group in these or similar words.  Allow time for discussion.

Our opening reading was from Martin Buber, and he said “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?”

The story suggests that people may be attracted to living an ideal life more than the life that is authentically their own. 

  • What roles do you think theology or personal philosophy play in encouraging us or discouraging us from being our more authentic selves?

We’ve talked about a number of theological views and how they tend either to exclude or include people with disabilities. 

  • Are there particular aspects of Unitarian Universalism you turn to when thinking about the meaning of disability?  What messages of hope does our tradition offer?

Invite the participants to consider their own theology or personal philosophy.  What does this suggest about the meaning of disability to you? About what it means to be human? Does your theology suggest any growing edges for your attitudes about disability?  Invite them to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative. Allow 10 minutes for reflection and journaling.

Closing

Offer participants the opportunity to call out something from today’s discussion that intrigued them or that they are taking home.

Give thanks for the participation, and for the promise that this knowledge has brought to the congregation.

Extinguish the Chalice

We extinguish this light aspiring to live our own experiences in the bonds of community.

Additional Resources

  • Bejoioan, Lynne M. Nondualistic Paradigms in Disability Studies & Buddhism: Creating Bridges for Theoretical Practice, Disability Studies Quarterly Vol 26 no 3.
  • Black, Kathy.  A Healing Homiletic:  Preaching and Disability, Abingdon Press, 1996.
  • Creamer, Deborah.  Disability and Christian Theology Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Creamer, Deborah.  “Theological Accessibility:  The Contribution of Disability,” in Disability Studies Quarterly, Fall 2006, Vol. 26, No. 4.
  • Danforth, Scot.  “Liberation Theology of Disability and the Option for the Poor,” in Disability Studies Quarterly, Summer 2005, Vol. 25, No. 3.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L.  The Disabled God:  Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Abingdon Press, 1994.  See pages 70-71 for passage quoted by Deborah Creamer in excerpt read aloud when introducing this workshop.
  • Hauerwas, Stanley, and Vanier, Jean.  Living Gently in a Violent World:  The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, IVP Books, 2008.
  • McNair, Jeff.  “Disabled Christianity” (blog).
  • Reynolds, Thomas E.  Vulnerable Communion:  A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Brazos Press, 2008.
  • Thomas, Rev. Laurie.  Perspectives on Disability – A Curriculum for Liberal Religious Adults, 2010. Session 6:  Theology and Disability, p 23-26.
  • Vanier, Jean.  Heart of L'Arche:  A Spirituality for Every Day.  Crossroad Publishing, 1995.
  • Webb-Mitchell, Brett.  Dancing with Disabilities – Opening the Church to All God's Children.  United Church Press, 1996.
  • Webb-Mitchell, Brett.  Unexpected guests at God's banquet:  Welcoming people with disabilities into the church.  Crossroad Publishing, 1994.
  • Wilke, Harold.  Creating the Caring Congregation – Guidelines for Ministering with the Handicapped.  Abingdon Press, 1980.
  • On Line Resources

  • The Normal Christian Life
  • Disability in Islam
  • Disability in Islam—A Guide for Khutbas, Seminars and Workshops

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For more information contact aim@uua.org.