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Now looking for participants!

Image: steps up to a church door. By Charles Clegg. Creative Commons licence, Flickr.

The ‘Uncovering the Roof’ research project into Christianity and disability is now looking for participants. We have a new Facebook page about the project, with more details about what the research will involve.

I’m looking for people who are disabled (or have long-term illnesses or learning difficulties), who attend churches, or used to. I’m hoping to explore people’s stories of disability and Christianity with them, with the aim of finding out more about the situation for disabled Christians today, and being able to share this knowledge with churches in the future.

(I’m also still looking for people who want to get involved with helping the research to take shape – a research advisory group. More about that later.)

Under the ‘read more’ link, you can find an FAQ with details about how you can get involved, what you’re committing to, and how we’ll try to make it possible for you to take part. I’d love to hear from you if you think you might fit the categories I’ve outlined below. Please have a look at the FAQ, and if you’re interested, get in touch.

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Fighting to Protect University Mental Health/Counselling Services

Image: students at a student support centre. Picture by University of Nottingham, Creative Commons, flickr.

I have an article up at the PhDisabled blog, about the media debate currently going over student mental health services in the UK and how they are overstretched and underfunded.

Read more

Balancing Responsibilities: Community and University

Image: the Lego Research Institute. Adorable lego researchers with a dinosaur, a microscope, a telescope and other research equipment. Image from the Lego Shop.

In the beginning, I was over-ambitious. When I wrote this post, I firmly believed that my research should be shaped by disabled people who are involved with churches, rather than just by me. I wanted to do a two-stage research project, beginning by talking to as many disabled Christians as possible, and asking them to shape the second stage of the research with me. I hoped that they could be my co-researchers, or at least very active participants, rather than just research ‘subjects’. Read more

Listening to Disabled People

Image: ‘See the Light’ by Vinoth Chandar – Flickr Creative Commons. Light shines through a door into the darkness.

Nancy Eiesland’s wonderful book ‘The Disabled God’ includes a disabled person talking about her experience of the pressure to appear ‘normal’ in church:

She [the pastor] said, “Well, Diane, you can’t get in the choir.”
And I said, “Why not?”
And she said, “Well, for one, there’s a step going up to the choir.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You could make a ramp. Or, I could be up there already when the choir marches on.” […]
“Oh, no,” she said. “And plus that, when we all stand, and you’re sitting there, that would look so awful. It would look so uneven. And what about your robe? You can’t wear a big old robe.”
I said, “I could get one made for me.”
She said, “Oh, it just wouldn’t look right.”
- Eiesland, ‘The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability’, p.35-36

I’ve given talks at two conferences recently. At one, I talked about normalcy, and the way that disabled people in the churches are caught up in ideas of needing to be ‘normal enough’, and good enough, to attend church – whether that’s about being told what it means to have ‘enough faith’ as a disabled person, or hearing ministers speak about how disabled people will (and must) be healed in heaven. This is almost always covert and subtle – it’s something that isn’t talked about clearly, but runs underneath all of the Church’s theology – in its sermons, in its ‘pastoral’ services for disabled people, in the language that it uses about disabled people… It’s unspoken, and therefore hard to challenge. At the other conference, I talked about ‘imaginative hermeneutics’ – which essentially means telling the lost stories of disabled people, particularly in the Bible. There are many disabled people in the Bible, but they only incredibly rarely have a voice of their own, and they are always, always healed. (What does that mean for the rest of us?) I talked about how re-telling their stories, imaginatively, may be one way for disabled people to reclaim their voices in the churches.

We cannot tell our stories if they are not listening.

And both ideas – challenging normalcy and creating new stories – must involve listening to disabled people. We cannot tell stories of disabled people without their input – that’s been done to disabled people far too much, for far too long. And I would argue that we cannot understand normalcy without the input of disabled people either. The pressure to be ‘normal’ is very difficult to understand from an outside position. So when Wayne Morris and Ron McCloughry explicitly reject the views of disabled people, because they don’t find them useful, they have failed to listen to the disabled community and disability studies – and that’s oppressive.

And we cannot tell our stories if they are not listening.

In particular, church leaders, theologians, and members of the churches must listen to theologians who come from a disability studies context or from within the disabled community. At the moment, they’re mostly not listening. And that’s partly because they know that the churches are responsible for excluding disabled people, and that it needs to get its act together. The Church doesn’t want to hear how it has contributed to oppressive normalcy. But normalcy doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It’s created by the Bible, theology, church practices and traditions. The churches draw on modern society’s ideas about what is ‘normal’ and acceptable, but the churches’ ideas on the subject also predate these – and in some cases, the churches helped to create our modern social discourse of normalcy. No wonder theologians and church representatives get angry or defensive when these ideas of normalcy are brought into the light. But we won’t hide our lights under a bushel!

We cannot tell our stories if they are not listening.

Where can we find examples of disabled people talking about these things? In terms of normalcy, it’s written about all through disability studies writing (which isn’t hard to read, especially if you read disabled people writing about their own experiences). The classics are really good – like Jenny Morris’s ‘Pride Against Prejudice’, Eli Claire’s ‘Exile and Pride’, and Mark Priestley, and Colin Barnes, and Carol Thomas… On the subject of disability and theology/church itself, if you’re up for some quite difficult reading, I love Betcher’s ‘Spirit and the Politics of Disability’, which has been ignored by theologians and disability scholars alike, which is a terrible shame as it’s an amazing book. There’s also the wonderful ‘Deaf Liberation Theology’ by Hannah Lewis, which is very readable and which I think everyone working in churches should read. And anything by the wonderful John Hull, and by Jennie Weiss-Block, and Kathy Black. The reason I think that disabled people should read writing like this, is that we need to be armed and ready to fight back against the inevitable resistance that comes when we call for our stories to be heard. If we can see normalcy, we can challenge it.

Let the light shine in the darkness.

Gender and Disability: Asking Difficult Questions

I’ll be presenting at the ‘Gender and Disability: Asking Difficult Questions‘ conference in May. I’ll be talking about disability and women in the Bible, and how we can reclaim their stories.

The conference is at the University of Sheffield on the 10th May. If you’re interested, the website is here, with more details on what, where and when. Hope to see you there!

Photo of a Sheffield University building by Jeremy Cranshaw, flickr, Creative Commons licence.

Inclusive Church: Disability

Last month I was able to attend the Inclusive Church one-day conference on disability, and I thought readers of this blog might like to hear about it. Read more

The Relevance of the Bible (To Disabled People)

Image: A picture of a Bible. Photo by Camille Sauvager (CC).

Why research what the Bible says about disability? Isn’t it irrelevant to society by now? Aren’t there more important things to research? Why bother?

My research does not come from a specifically Christian perspective. I hope to be working with a partnership group of disabled Christians, and I expect (and hope) that their Christian ‘take’ on things will come through the research. But my views on Christianity, specifically the Bible, are sociological. I’m interested in the effects that religion has on society, and vice versa. And, perhaps most importantly to me, I’m interested in how the Bible has affected society – especially its effects on disabled people.

Disabled people have asked me why this interests me. The subtext to their question is an important one: in these days of ‘welfare reform’ and the appalling removal of rights from disabled people in this country, are there not more important things to research? In many ways, there are (and if I’d started my PhD after the election of the coalition government, I might have ended up researching something different). And yet, I continue to believe in the serious importance of the Bible to disabled people. The Bible and Christianity are absolutely central to the way that our society views disability. Christian and biblically-influenced views have shaped the models that we use to understand disability, especially the charity and tragedy models of disability, over centuries. There are lots of examples of research on this.Lois Bragg sees a much more positive view of disability in pre-Christian texts, such as Norse and Celtic pagan literature, than she does in later Christian society and the Bible. Scholars like Jeremy Schipper and Rebecca Raphael have explored the ways that disability is represented in specific biblical texts, especially in the Old Testament – for example, the rules that did not allow disabled priests to enter the central area of the Temple, which was the only place where a direct experience of God was possible, and how these rules changed and broadened across different books of the Bible. Cusack argues that there were two contradictory ways that disabled people were seen in medieval society, under the influence of different, competing biblical approaches to disability: as either blessed or demonized. From these approaches grew the charity and tragedy models of disability, which were strongly influenced by Christian perspectives not only towards charity in general, but specifically by biblical models of healing (something I’m very interested in – but that’s another blog post).

This major influence of the Bible on social responses to disability isn’t widely acknowledged, though. Disability studies texts mention the Bible in passing, especially referencing the Old Testament laws that I mentioned above, but focus in more detail on the effects of the paradoxical biblical representations for medieval and later societies. This is important, but I think it’s even more important to start with the representations of disability in the Bible itself, since these are complex and paradoxical – as you might expect, in a collection of writing that spans thousands of years.

Hector Avalos says there are three ways in which disability-focused biblical scholars respond to the Bible: redemptionism, rejectionism or historicism.* (I can’t link to his article as it isn’t available online, but if you’re interested in disability and you ever get the chance to read it, do – it’s fantastic.) Historicism simply involves historical analysis of the way disability is treated in ancient texts and what this reveals about how the ancient world thought about it. But the other two perspectives interest me more. If you’re redemptionist about the biblical texts that represent disability, you want to reclaim them, perhaps by showing that Jesus challenged the stigma and discrimination that faced disabled people in the ancient world (although it’s not clear whether or not he actually did). This is the kind of reclaiming that feminist biblical scholars have done with the less positive representations of women in the Bible. Rejectionists, on the other hand, tend to argue that nothing positive can be done with the representations of disability in the Bible, and that it is better to expose these texts and challenge the effect that they have had on society than to pretend that everything the Bible says about disability is good. My perspective, as you can probably tell by now, is somewhere between the two.

To illustrate my position on this, let me (re-)tell you a story from the Bible, and say something about how it is used. The Gospel of Luke shows Jesus telling this story while he is at the home of a Pharisee (religious leader). A man is preparing a great banquet and invites some rich, powerful guests. He sends his servant out to distribute the invitations. Each of the guests gives an excuse as to why they can’t come. The servants comes back to report this to his master, who becomes incredibly angry. He says to his servant, “Go out into the streets and find the lowest of the low in our society – poor people and disabled people**. Get them to come to the banquet.” The servant does this, but has to return to report that there is still room for more guests. “Then go out to very edges of town and into the country lanes, and make the beggars come in,” says the master. He adds that, if he has his way, none of the people who were invited to the party will ever get a taste of his food or drink.

This story is so widely used to illustrate the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom that I’ve lost count of the Christian disability organisations that quote it in this context. James Metzger argues that this parable is not about disability or the inclusiveness of God – and that if you try to read it this way, you tie yourself up in knots. The master has clearly not had any kind of change of heart towards the poor or oppressed in his society, nor is he any less obsessed with social status at the end than he is at the beginning. Metzger sees this story as reflecting a very ambivalent view towards disabled people on the part of Jesus, the storyteller. But, as disabled people know, we have been used as literary devices and metaphors in stories, rather than as real people, for as far back as we can remember. I think that this story is just using disability as one more literary device, to say something that probably isn’t about disability at all. The Bible isn’t representing disabled people any more negatively here than any other text does. It’s just that, when it does represent disability, it has more influence over society than other books. The representations of disabled people in the Bible will be remembered when representations in other books have been long forgotten. And that, for me, is why the Bible matters – to all disabled people. Of course, it matters a great deal to disabled Christians, and it’s their views that I’m particularly interested in, in this research project. But I think it has a great deal of relevance to the rest of society too, when it comes to disability.

Philip Davies has written, in his book ‘Whose Bible Is It Anyway?’, that the extensive role and influence of the Bible in society means that people outside of Christian (and Jewish) communities have the right to critique the Bible too. (He says a lot more than this, of course – it’s a very interesting book. I’m going to a lecture that he’s giving this evening, which is one of the things that sparked this blog post.) In Disability Studies, I think that we need to be looking a lot more closely at the Bible and its role in the ways that we are represented. Because, on the whole, the Bible has represented disability without the input of disabled people. As with most forms of literature, we tend to be reduced to narrative (and theological) devices by the Bible, but this doesn’t have to be a problem as long as it’s acknowledged and talked about. For that, we need the input of disabled people. Including, but not limited to, disabled Christians.

*Avalos, H. (2007) ‘Redemptionism, Rejectionism, and Historicism as Emerging Approaches in Disability Studies.’ Perspectives in Religious Studies 34: 91–100.

**I’m paraphrasing, because I dislike the language used about both groups (poor people and disabled people) in most translations of the Bible, where we are reduced to ‘the’ (as in, ‘the poor’, ‘the lame’, ‘the blind’).

Theory in Practice: Disability studies journal article about recent government and media representations of disability

Picture: protesters at today’s ‘Hardest Hit’ march, carrying a sign which is partly written in Braille. It reads “We’re being —- by the government.” Someone has written a translation of the Braille word below it: “shafted”. Photograph copyright Lisa Egan.

‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform – Disability & Society.

Yesterday’s discussion on the BBC’s You and Yours was about disability, cuts and welfare reform, and featured Where’s the Benefit‘s own Bendy Girl. Some contributors’ comments offered a clear example of how attitudes to disability haven’t really changed much since Victorian times – if not before. Some academic research recently published has been talking about how these attitudes might relate to the way that the government and the media are representing disability at the moment. Academic journal articles are expensive if you’re not at a university, but I think research around disability and society is vitally important, and this article’s conclusions are a late-but-appreciated part of academic debate – so here’s a bit of a summary of the article. Read more

The Price of Education

Image of the entrance to Leeds University. Photo by Martin Toole (cc).

Rise in university applications slows amid fears about degree costs |  The Guardian

This is an interesting one. A market research company has asked current students whether they would have gone to university if they’d had to pay £9000 fees. Around half of students surveyed say that they would not have done. Read more

Daily Blogging Challenge

Image of a writing hand. Photo by Rachel Davies (cc).

Inspired by people who’ve been doing the April A to Z blogging challenge, like fellow PhD student kirstyes, I’m thinking about blogging daily. Read more

Plain English: My Research

Image: a stack of books. Photo by Dayna Bateman (cc).

If you’re a postgrad student and you haven’t discovered #phdchat on twitter yet, it’s worth taking a look. A number of contributors to the discussion have been putting their research into plain English to make it more accessible for readers – here are some examples. It’s a brilliant idea, and especially relevant to my project. Read more

Theory in Practice: ‘Digital Researcher’ Conference, 2011

Image: woman presenting at the Digital Researcher conference. My photograph.

Inspired by Jennifer Jones‘ liveblogging, I’m putting down my thoughts on the Digital Researcher 2011 conference (twitter tag: #dr11) while experiencing it. Read more

Constructing Interpretations

Image of a Bible open at a page of the gospels. Photo (cc) Rachel Davies.

I did give the warning that ‘regular’ for me actually means ‘biannual’, didn’t I? Apologies for the long absence. We moved house, so life took over for quite a while. But! I am now enrolled on my PhD (although not ‘registered’ until I’ve submitted an extended proposal, which I’ll be doing after Christmas). Read more

Theology in Practice: A Tale of Three Masses – 1*

Image: a church with steps leading up. Photo (cc) Reinante el Pintor de Fuego.

Hoping to make a bit of a semi-regular series of theology/theory in practice, to complement more theoretical thoughts. Although to me, ‘regular’ tends to mean ‘more than once a year’. So we’ll see how it goes!

I’ve been to three churches recently, where I had very different access experiences. Read more

Emancipatory Disability Research (or: Why it matters that the ‘academy’ isn’t more accessible for disabled people)

Image: picture of a student’s desk. My photograph.

Last week a commenter on this blog asked the following question:

“Could you also explain, though, why does your research HAVE to be done by a disabled person…?” Read more

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