Should Christians change how we think about disability?

Professor Stephen Hawking (Getty Images)

I recently became embroiled in an online discussion prompted by a topical phenomenon: cartoons of Professor Stephen Hawking reaching the pearly gates and walking through, now liberated from his wheelchair. These cartoons, and the wider discussion of Hawking’s life and achievements have drawn criticism from disability rights activists as ableist. This is to say that tributes describing how Hawking ‘overcame his disability’, or visions of him without a wheelchair in a life beyond, implicitly denote the state of being a disabled person as lacking or inferior to being able-bodied. As several commentators have remarked, a wheelchair is liberating, not constraining, and Hawking’s achievements do not require the qualification: ‘despite his disability’.

These are serious points of critique, and resonate with me especially just now as both a Christian and the mother of a baby who is, albeit temporarily, disabled due to having a colostomy. As I ventured in the online discussion, a colostomy was and is for my son beyond liberating; it is life-saving. Nevertheless, I cannot honestly say that the hospital appointments, complicated nappy changes, ordering medical supplies, caring for inflamed skin that come with his condition are not very near an optimal state. Nor do I think it is ableism to look forward to seeing my son through the operations that will give him a normally functioning bowel.

As a Christian, however, the questions become more complicated. Returning to the image of Hawking at the pearly gates, it isn’t clear if the cartoonists considered the Resurrection of the Body, rather than a less clearly defined notion of the spirit ascending to some form of Heaven, but Catholics should. And we have, on the one hand, the example of Jesus healing those afflicted by leprosy, blindness, paralysis and so on, and the miraculous healings of the sick through the intercession of saints since. Thus the relief of bodily suffering is closely linked to the gifts of God in the person of Jesus. But we also see, on the other, Jesus returning from the dead with the wounds in his hands still intact.

Yet rather than presenting a confusing picture, these two images actually present us with a sophisticated understanding of disability and physical suffering that has something in common with the arguments of disability activists. When Jesus invited Thomas to see and feel his wounds, not only does this show God’s sharing in bodily suffering, but that such suffering is not effaced by the Resurrection of the Body. In the same way, a disabled person like my baby son or Hawking, we might venture, does not remain the same person even when pain or disability can be healed. Personhood, identity, is shaped by the body, whether healthy or not. And yet Jesus, who healed the sick, who was comforted by Mary Magdalene, who washed the feet of the disciples, also recognises the desire for bodily relief. This does not solve the conundrum of the cartoons, yet a vision of disability that recognises both identity and succour is powerfully witnessed in Christianity.