As some of you know, I am a speech-language pathologist. Specifically, I have worked with and taught students about people with acquired neurological disorders such as stroke, head trauma, and dementia. I have published and presenting internationally on disabilities issues via my work with the World Health Organization. What you do not know is that my younger brother and only sibling has autism. This fact was very influential in my choosing the field.
Thus, in both my work and personal life I know about disabilities. God created the world and all the people in it. That includes people with disabilities, both congenital and acquired. We do not know God’s wisdom directly. We know it via the Bible.
Let me first start off with a definition of disability, which is not the typical medical model definition. Disabilities are any physical or mental conditions that limit a person’s ability to participate in activities that one wishes to do. The World Health Organization states that about 15% of people in the world have some level of disability, about 1 billion people.
There are many passages in both the Old and New Testament concerning how we should treat persons with disabilities.
You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall do no injustice in court, You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:14-15 ESV)
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14 ESV)
The Bible does not simply represent people with disabilities as objects that we should only be kind to but as examples for us all.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God choose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29 ESV)
As some have stated, the “foolish” spoken of might be those with some level of intellectual disability or perhaps lack of access to education. Perhaps the so-called advantages in life such as always being considered the smartest in the room, the cleverest, the most attractive, the physically strongest - the people we would call gifted- might on a spiritually level be the ones at most at risk for not being able to recognize the power and importance of God in their lives.
In fact, some places God gives special honor to those considered by society to lack it. Here God talks about each of us a member of the One, of God. Note that the Bible is stating that some members or people are going to be considered by our earthly standards to be worth more than others, with others even in a position of shame or derision.
But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet. On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which are our more presentative parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that it lacked, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:18-26 ESV)
There are children who are born with disabilities. We do not know why this is, only God knows. We all differ in our abilities, with some strengths and some limitations. We do know for sure that being born with a disability is not a curse or punishment for some sin of the parents. Jesus addressed this when asked about a blind man.
And his disciplines asked him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with saliva. Then He anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9: 2-7 ESV)
In this passage, Jesus does not say the man or his parents caused his blindness, but He did use the man’s blindness to show the power of God. I think it is important that Jesus states here that he is the “light of the world” meaning, I believe, that we are all spiritually blind without Him. Jesus performed many miracles with people with disabilities to show God’s love and power. However, in no case did He state that this was from sin, or that these persons were any lesser in God’s eyes.
Most of us will eventually have some level of disability before we die. It is a condition of humankind and our fall from grace. Having a disability is part of the world we live in, just like the sunrise, the flowers, and the insects. Disability is thus part of the nature of the world. Many parents of children with Down syndrome have had worries or trepidations when amniocentesis indicates that their child will be born with this condition. Those who chose to give birth to these children almost always say later that they could not image their life without that them for the joy they have brought them, what they have taught them about life, how much they enjoy life.
Job suffered disabilities at the hand of Satan. It is important to know that God did not cause Job’s infirmities but did allow Satan to do them. Satan and his demons might specifically target some people, especially those of great faith. He wants to break people from belief in God and thinks the hardships that can occur with disability is a way to do it. In fact, people might become stronger in their faith
Some come to disability via the sin of others. A drunk driver can hit a pedestrian and cause permanent disability. These hardships can be dealt with via faith in God. It is not easy, but God never in the Old or New Testaments promises us a life without challenges. Strong religious faith can help those with disabilities see their true worth, the worth given to them by God, His love. It should also help those without overt disabilities value their worth.
Others come to disability through their own habits or shortfalls. They do not take their prescribed medicine; they engage in harmful and destructive habits. They engage in high-risk thrill-seeking behaviors such as doing drugs. God does not punish them for their behavior with a disability, but the disability results from their not following God’s plan. Now, to be clear, there are people who live perfectly healthy lives, both physically and mentally, and still get cancer, have strokes. Again, this is part of the human body with its physical imperfections. Some people at birth have predispositions to certain diseases, which can cause disabilities. Positive lifestyle choices may delay but not keep these from occurring.
One aspect of disability not talked about enough is how it is an example of how we concentrate on what God does not give us but give so little thought to what He does. In the case of the birth of a child, we are born with 100 billion neurons at birth. Thus, throughout the course of a pregnancy, the brain grows at the rate of 250,000 nerve cells per minute. It is not just the growth that is significant but the extremely complex interconnections that must take place to form the different parts of the brain which direct the development of the entire body.
What if there are some malformations or failure to organize correctly that affects 1 billion neurons? That could certainly be enough to produce a disability. In this case 1% did not go right but 99% did! How many of us obsess over the 1% of our lives that do not go as we want, because we take the rest for granted. Do we pray and count all the things that go right in our lives every single day? If you think only two things happen to you a day, then having one go wrong would seem significant. But what if 100 things happen to you in the day but you fail to acknowledge the 99 in thanks to God, and instead stew over the one thing that went in your view “wrong.” Thus, yes, each child’s birth is a miracle, even when all 100 billion neurons do not develop or form the interactions that they should.
Now, let’s look at another scenario in our person with 1% of the neurons as less than optimal arraignment. What if 2 billion of them align in an exceptional efficient and creative way? This person could have an overt disability but also have other atypical exceptional traits. Again, we often look for what is not the norm, not perfectly formed. In this person, unfortunately, no one might seek or even see these strengths. I used 2 billion because there is twice what is exceptional positive about this person than what did not develop in the typical way. In some cases, the exceptional skill is obvious to all, such as Ray Charles who is blind but an extraordinary musical artist. But it is not always obvious, and the tragedy is for others to not see them as anything other than “deficit”, not recognizing their unique strengths. I think perhaps an even bigger tragedy is for them to not see their strengths in themselves. I tell my speech-language pathology graduate students I teach that the person who you are seeing for Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, whatever the disability, may have many traits superior to theirs.
One of the most important prophets in the Bible was Moses. It is instructive of God’s view toward disability that He chose someone with a speech impairment, which many have written was stuttering.
But first, I feel I must address how the secular world often distorts God’s message. This is particularly dangerous because it looks like it is paying tribute to God, so people often believe it more than the truth. In the famous movie The Ten Commandments, which won several awards including an Oscar, part of the story of Moses is told. First, a personal objection with social and cultural ramifications – Moses was not a 6’ 3” Scottish/English man! The inaccuracies in this movie are too numerous to discuss here and you might think is no big deal, poetic license. Well, it is if it distorts the message and even worse if it keeps people from reading the actual passages.
One of the most important distortions of the movie is that Moses character has a booming commanding voice with perfect diction. This is an important, and I believe purposeful misleading change. God surely prefers the strong and perfect as we define it. Showing that God would put in such an important place in history, leading his people out of bondage and verbally confronting the Pharaoh, would have conveyed a powerful message that God would give this task to someone with a speech disorder. It is a misrepresentation of Moses and an even greater misrepresentation of God. God calls us all to a specific service, our spiritual gifts. The story of Moses shows that those with disabilities are as called to service as those without a disability. When Moses objects to his charge because of his speech impairment, God rebukes Him stating that He already knows that because He made him that way. It is also important that God does partially relent and assigns Aaron to sometimes speak on Moses’ behalf. Thus, God is willing to give us help when we request it to fulfill our charge. God provides health care providers such as therapists, nurses, and physicians, as well as teachers, to help people with disabilities lead their lives to their desired fullest. As important, He may provide people who love and support them. BUT the charge to each of them remains the same. God is saying that He will provide you the help you need, but you still are still responsible for following His plan for you.
We need to consider how less we are compared to God, and yet He loves us and cares for us. He sent His only Son to die on the cross for us. Now consider this, the difference between God and us is infinitely greater than the difference between an able-bodied successful person and a homeless person with schizophrenia.