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Disability and Catholic Feminism (Part I): Including Disability in Our Vocabulary

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January 28, 2021

As Catholics, we are called to build community with and advocate for the marginalized. There are several populations of people who may come to mind when we think of those who are marginalized: BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), women, the poor, the sick, the homeless, LGBT persons, the imprisoned, the immigrant. Catholic social teaching and Scripture outline how we ought to build community with persons from these populations.

This teaching is part of what helps us understand how someone can be both Catholic and feminist: Working toward just treatment for all people necessitates doing so for women. It is important to remember that women’s collective experiences are not homogenous, which motivates our advocacy for intersectional feminism. Our work toward just treatment for all persons ought to reflect this diversity within feminine experiences. Women from every marginalized group not only deserve a seat at the table, but they also should be the leaders we look to in order to fully understand the diverse challenges that women face.

One group of people that we often neglect in discussions of marginalization and inequality are people with disabilities. If we are to achieve truly intersectional feminism, we must include women with disabilities and women who care for people with disabilities. Over the coming months, we will dive into a series that addresses how disability advocacy is both Catholic and feminist. We will begin with vocabulary: common terms and pitfalls.

If we are to achieve truly intersectional feminism, we must include women with disabilities and women who care for people with disabilities.

Words for Disability

Why do I and other disability writers spend so much time clarifying terms? Because words are powerful! They can hurt people or make them feel loved and seen. It is important to use words thoughtfully and intentionally, especially in a society where it is so easy to broadcast and weaponize them.

As with any other topic, there are varying opinions about how we ought to discuss disability. For example, some don’t like the word “disabled” because it suggests a negative orientation toward living and ability (“You are dis-abled.”). They might use the phrase “differently-abled” instead. While this latter phrase is well-intentioned, it can also suggest that we’re all differently-abled and, therefore, that we all experience similar limitations when it comes to our differences — which is simply not true.

Some people prefer to use person-centered language, such as “person with a disability” or “person experiencing disability” rather than “disabled person” in order to emphasize humanity, rather than the characteristics that qualify humanity. A person’s level of need or ability does not constitute their whole identity! Person-centered language also allows for the possibility of these experiences being temporary; after all, a person may not always be homeless, disabled, or sick. That being said, some disabled persons do view their disability as an expression of part of their identity and prefer “disabled person.”

The most important thing is that you are engaging in conversation with the disabled person directly! It is always better to speak toward the person in question, even if a caregiver, accompanier, or family member is present. Doing so shows that you acknowledge the individuality and dignity of the person, even if it does not appear that he or she is verbal or conventionally communicative. Corrections and preferences are much more likely to be given in kind, with no offense taken, if you start from a place of respect.

Several words used to be common when describing people with disabilities but are less so today. Words or phrases such as “handicapped,” “impaired,”  “crippled,” and “special needs” have fallen out of popular use for a variety of reasons. The first three words call to mind physical disabilities and were popularized after the Vietnam War, when there was a surge of physically disabled post-war veterans. While some people still feel comfortable using them, others may consider them to be insulting. “Special needs” often refers to people with cognitive disabilities; some now see this phrase as infantilizing, while others are comfortable using it. For example, when I talk about my own brother, Matthew, who has two genetic disabilities, I sometimes use “special needs” when speaking with people who are unfamiliar with disability, because it can help them understand that his disabilities are not solely physical in nature.

The language we use to discuss disability most often depends on the preferences of the individuals who live with disability. As we can see, there is some room for different, well-intentioned decisions about the vocabulary we use. However, there is one word we should never use, whether or not we’re describing a person with a disability: “retard.” Our refusal or decision to use this word is, frankly, a matter of respecting human dignity.

The word “retard” was used to describe people with intellectual disabilities in the early 1900s. It has since become used colloquially to mean “stupid,” “unfair,” “slow,” “ridiculous,” “upsetting,” and so on. This term is no longer used in medical settings, because we have a fuller understanding of what cognitive disability is; it isn’t just being “slow” (which is what “retard” means in French). Unfortunately, some still use this word as slang. One simple way to be a disability advocate is to lovingly correct friends and family who use this word and remind them that it is offensive, because it equates being disabled with being the terms listed above.

Personally, I use “disabled persons” and “person with a disability” interchangeably. I prefer “persons” over “people” for the same reason the Church often uses “persons” in her documents: It highlights individual, personal dignity over the homogenous notion of “people.”

Disability and The Word

As Catholics, we believe that the most powerful words are the Word of God: Scripture. As such, our engagement with Scripture ought to shape how we perceive and treat members of marginalized communities. In the Gospels, we see Jesus heal people experiencing a variety of disabilities: blindness (Mark 8:22-26), deafness (Mark 7:31-37), hemorrhaging (Matthew 9:20-22), paralysis (Matthew 9:1-7), and more. This inclusion shows us that disability is not just a modern phenomenon, even if it is a modern term.

When we read the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles in Scripture, we should remember the people involved and accurately situate the stories within their historical context. During Jesus’ time, people with disabilities were viewed as “unclean” and were, therefore, shunned by society. Others could not touch or dine with them, and they were not welcome at religious services. Keeping this context in mind, we can see that Jesus’ engagement with persons with disabilities was a radical upheaval of social norms.

Jesus’ engagement with persons with disabilities was a radical upheaval of social norms.

Aside from healing their physical ailments, Jesus’ interaction with these persons — especially given His use of physical touch — is, itself, a form of healing. Jesus healed the aching wounds of an excluded person. It is also this relationship and His love that heal them.

Both forms of healing are important and, in fact, parallel the two foremost models of disability as understood in secular disability study: the medical model and the social model. The medical model defines disability as a primarily medical phenomenon. It says that disability is something that can be scientifically understood and, therefore, that solutions to the challenges of disability are medical in nature. The social model understands disability as a primarily social phenomenon. It asserts that the challenges of disability are the limitations in access, political protections, and community, and so the solution is to increase access, protections, and opportunities for genuine connection with others.

In the early 1900s, disability was largely viewed through the medical lens. With the rise of disability advocacy on behalf of physically disabled veterans after the Vietnam War, disability came to be seen through a more social lens. Today, disability scholars largely agree that disability is a combination of both the medical and the social models. It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, provided us with a model that integrates both, long before explicit disability advocacy existed.

One of the most important passages in Scripture regarding disability is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus comes upon a man who was born blind. His disciples ask Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Christ responds, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:1-3). This passage demonstrates that disability is not a result of sin. Furthermore, it positions disabled persons as conduits of God’s goodness and power.

Not all interpretations of this passage are helpful, however. Some people without disabilities interpret this passage as meaning that the purpose of disability is to make others feel close to God. This interpretation can lead people to think that the reason for the existence of disabled persons is to “be inspiring.” But people do not exist to make us feel a certain way. Disability does not exist simply to teach those who don’t have a disability. We must remember that disabled persons are whole, unique persons with aspirations for their own lives.

Disability does not exist simply to teach those who don’t have a disability. We must remember that disabled persons are whole, unique persons with aspirations for their own lives.

Words Online

The notion that disability exists to inspire is described by a term you might see when involved in disability advocacy: “inspiration porn.” The phrase draws a parallel between the way pornography seeks ot make us feel good and how we’re made to feel when watching a video or applying a meaning to a person’s life or actions that we are not participating in. Simply put, the phrase “inspiration porn” highlights how videos and other media can exploit others, even if unintentionally. I personally use the term “inspirationalizing” instead of “inspiration porn,” but I mean the same thing: We don’t know the people in the video. We aren’t those people. We have never been in their particular situation. Using their life or experience for our own purpose offends their dignity, because it reduces them to how they make us feel.

For example: Have you ever seen or even shared a viral video on Facebook of a teen with autism being asked by his classmate to prom? Or of a baby with Down syndrome giggling, accompanied by a caption saying that abortion snuffs out the joy of seeing that smile? While these videos make us feel good and do work against the exclusion of people with disabilities, they can support the idea that the core of a person’s worth is the joy they bring others. We should never base a person’s right to love, life, and acceptance on the way they make us feel. Furthermore, these types of videos and photographs are often used to propagate political messages and can treat a human person as a prop.

Using Words Thoughtfully

I have three suggestions for how we, as Catholic feminists, can begin including persons with disabilities in our advocacy:

  • When sharing a story or video, make sure the featured disabled person consented to its sharing.
  • Work in our own lives to engage with disabled persons and teach our children about disability.
  • Use language that emphasizes human dignity, rather than a political or inspirational message.
God’s examples of healing in Scripture can invite us to understand the lived, real experiences of disabled persons in our own community. Accepting this invitation, coupled with using thoughtful vocabulary, will make all the difference to the persons who are listening in our pews and reading our words.

God’s examples of healing in Scripture can invite us to understand the lived, real experiences of disabled persons in our own community.

Recommendations for Further Reading

If you want to learn more about language, Scripture, and the history of disability advocacy, I recommend A Healing Homiletic by Kathy Black and Copious Hosting by Jennie Weiss Block.

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Madison Chastain

Madison Chastain is a Bay Area, California, transplant working and earning her master’s degree in Chicago. Madison is an ex-military brat who’s lived all over the place, with a love of baking, boxing, yoga, and writing. She has two younger brothers, one with profound special needs, who motivate her commitment to surround herself with and advocate for young people and persons with disabilities. Madison loves a good art project when she’s not knee-deep in reading or sharing time with her friends at L’Arche. You can read more of her writing at theologyforeverybody.com.

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