We are all made in the image of God. This is a fundamental truth for all of us, disabled or non-disabled … although the question of whether any of us is truly ‘non-disabled’ and, if we are, whether that endures for more than a season, is up for discussion. Our understanding that we are all made in God’s image is the soil in which the dignity of humanity is rooted; not in our own achievements, nor in the approval of others – but in a relationship with our creator God.
Some of us need to hear this afresh. The psalmist expresses it beautifully. We are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ he says (Psalm 139:14). This is how God sees each one of us. He made us and loves us unconditionally. It makes no difference if we are young or old; if we see or don’t see; if we walk or don’t walk; if we hear or don’t hear; if we speak or don’t speak. It’s of no consequence to God’s love if we feel humiliated by epileptic seizures or are disfigured by the loss of a limb, or even if we can’t remember our own name because of the ravages of dementia. Our learning disability may mean our response to his love is no more than a smile. It makes no difference. God made us and loves us, each one special and beautiful.
Models of disability – ways of thinking about disability – have evolved and continue to evolve. They are important because they are used in shaping social policies and political agendas.
The medical model has been defined largely in retrospect to reflect what was actually happening before disability rights initiatives challenged long-held assumptions. In the medical model view, disabled people either need fixing (treatment) or care. This fits comfortably with the Christian virtue of compassion, but the risk is that disabled people are disempowered, made dependent and lose dignity. Others make decisions about their lives from positions of expertise and power…
The social model views so-called disabled people as those having impairments who find themselves dis-abled by barriers presented by social structures, the built environment and prejudiced attitudes. This model aims to give disabled people access, independence and dignity – and to put them in control of any care and support they may need to live a fulfilling life. Of course, Christians can identify with this too, as we assert the fundamental dignity of any human being by virtue of being made in the image of God.
But this, I believe, is not the end of the story. To some extent the social model is defined in opposition to the medical model and herein lies a danger…
The consumerist culture of the West that seems to be spreading unchecked across the globe fosters individualism and selfishness that works in opposition to that idea of community. The aim of bringing independence to those who live with disability has driven much that is good and helpful, and is to be celebrated. But there’s a danger of going too far in the pursuit of independence, with the perverse consequence that disabled people can become all the more isolated and lonely. There are times when we all need the help of those around us. This is not about weakness or failure, but about complementarity and community, about how things should be.
The Bible affirms the dignity of all people and supports neither a strident, heroic independency nor an abject, passive dependency - but gives us wholesome pictures of interdependency.