Reflecting on Disability: The Word, the Reality, the Lived experience.

June 18, 2011


I was standing in the kitchen flipping pancakes one day when I noticed the spatula in my hand, as if I was noticing a spatula for the very  first time. This moment of reverence for such a simple, everyday kitchen utensil had not so much to do with the function of it, but rather, the sound of the word, “spatula.” I said it aloud, and repeated it, and it became very strange to me. (Here I will ask you to also verbalize it in order to gain a better understanding of why I share this with you.)  Spatula. Who named it a spatula? And why?  It still is one of the strangest words to me.

I often compare this moment in the kitchen with where I am on my journey of thinking about disability. This month I will finish my third year of seminary, with one more to go. The last two years have given me space and focused time to consider “disability”: the word, the reality, and the experience.

The word disability has become, in some ways, like the word spatula, to me. The prefix dis (to tear apart) implies some sort of break from  ability or abledness. And terms that frequently surround disability in various contexts—-impairment, crippled, intellectual, developmental, cognitive, physical, acquired, spectrum, barrier, limitation, overcome (and on and on)—-have also had the “spatula effect” on my brain after awhile, tearing apart the familiar meanings I had previously assigned them.

Disability is an area of study that digs into common human experience, yet the experience of disability itself is diverse. We must listen
carefully to stories and experiences in order to understand what the word disability means to someone who lives with it as a front-and-center reality of life. Such listening continues to be the largest part of my journey as a student—-a seminary student, yes, but also a student of what it means to be human!

My journey as a seminary student and simultaneously as an  ADNet  Associate has included many opportunities for listening and input. As I have listened, the wisdom inherent in the stories of persons with disabilities, their families, professionals in the field, and more, has broadened my personal context and perspective, showcasing the breadth and depth of the diversity present within the disability world.

I have relished stories of the exciting developments in the area of disability awareness that some refer to as a civil rights movement within policy at the federal and state government levels. Even more significantly, my thinking has been stretched by the ways the reality of disability brings about shifts in social constructs and even in the way we understand God.

Approaching disability from a theological perspective calls forth questions related to theology and ethics. How we answer such questions  influences (and is often wedded to) how we approach pastoral care, Christian education, and inclusion. The lived experience of disability nudges us continually toward an inclusion that moves far beyond making our churches physically accessible, to a sense of the table of Christ’s fellowship open for all.

From the many stories of both struggle and celebration that I have been privileged to hear, and in some cases to be a part of, I know that we have a long way to go toward making a table for all in our congregations. We must continue to urge our congregations and institutions to move beyond accessibility (to quote author Brett Webb-Mitchell) and toward fuller inclusion. This means keeping a careful eye on the way we do things, always paying attention to who is not at the table.

Author:  Kathy Dickson (a member at First Mennonite Church of Bluffton and a student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio).

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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