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Disability and Catholic Feminism: The Wide Reach of Ableism Narratives

In the first part of this series on disability and Catholic feminism, I wrote an introduction to disability advocacy and vocabulary. As you engage in online spaces, you will often see disability advocacy label itself as working against “ableism.”

Recognizing Ableism

“Ableism” is a broad term that refers to treating others (and ourselves!) better or worse based on physical ability, health, or capacity. It is important to recognize that ableism is always a functional negative — even if the things you say seem positive — because it insinuates that the opposite (disability, sickness, or injury) is negative. For example, my brother Matthew uses a wheelchair when we are out of the house. This is not because he can’t walk, but rather because he can. And he is fast and strong! Since he doesn’t understand boundaries and the differences between things we do and do not own, if we go to Target and he’s not in his wheelchair, he would tear toys from their boxes faster than lightning! He would grab people we don’t know thinking they are friends, and if we heard an unexpected loud sound, he might become frightened and collapse onto the floor, unwilling to move. He knows that he is safe and secure in his wheelchair.

However, many of my friends first meet him when he is in his wheelchair and assume that he can’t walk. If they find out he can walk and say, “Oh, good! He’s not as disabled as I thought!”, we could consider that statement to be ableist, because it assumes that people who can’t walk are “worse off” than those who can. Even if such a statement is well-meaning, it sows a seed of looking down on others.

The Intersection of Ableism and Feminism

Ableism and feminism intersect in many ways, in no small part because for centuries, women were treated in medical settings that viewed men as the standard and, therefore, saw women’s bodies as “atypical,” a word often used nowadays to refer to disabled persons. Women’s bodies are still treated in many medical schools as the non-normative, or non-standard, version of the human body. Gynecology and obstetrics are specializations not all residents choose to pursue in depth, and even then, many issues of women’s health may actually be more accurately housed under other specializations. Not all doctors have experience with the unique components of the female body, and not all women’s health problems are traced back to the womb.

We see these issues in the ways that birth control and weight loss are viewed as the catch-all solutions to a variety of women’s health concerns, replacing exploration into their root causes. Women’s pain is often taken less seriously, and these issues are even more likely to occur for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) women. The maternal mortality rate is astronomical in the United States, particularly for women of color. These problems can be situated under the umbrella of ableism and can be masked when we settle for the narrative of “strong women” without asking why they have to be strong in the first place.

In my last article, I talked about vocabulary and how we can be disability advocates in ways as simple as changing the terms we use and share online. When we discuss social narratives, we are talking about the stories, feelings, and beliefs we cultivate through experiences and media. Beyond interpersonal relationships, larger narratives are at work in the entertainment we consume. When we think about the pressure placed on women’s bodies, it is easy to see how the media impacts our opinions. Hollywood actors, fashion week models, and Instagram influencers all present, through their success, narratives about which “kinds” of women are beautiful.

Feminism and ableism also intersect prominently in the areas of weight loss and wellness culture. Women are constantly sold ableist lies:

“You’re always healthier if you’re skinnier.”

“You can achieve perfect health on your own.”

“You’re a better mother if you do things naturally.”

As we continue to unmask how beauty standards are both racist and sexist, we can also see how they are ableist. Not all bodies are skinny! Not all bodies move in the same way! Not all bodies work as we’re told they should!

Fat phobia (the fear of being at a larger weight or clothing size) is deeply ableist and hurts women of all sizes. Women who struggle with eating disorders have a more difficult time recovering, women who are larger feel pressure to slim down in order to be taken seriously, and women who find themselves at our culture’s “ideal size” face immense pressure to stay that way — when, as women, our bodies are not meant to “stay” any way. We cycle and flow on purpose.

The “Need” for Healing

It is also important to recognize that the media functions in ableist ways regarding physically and cognitively disabled persons. More often than not, cognitively disabled characters in movies and television function in stereotypical and harmful ways. We call them “tropes”: common, clichéd narrative devices. Some tropes of cognitively disabled persons include being childlike, being frequently confused, pining after a romantic partner who will never return their affections because of their disability, being untrustworthy and having to prove their worthiness, being the subject of miracles or the impetus behind the protagonist’s personal growth, and (most frequently) being killed or sacrificing themselves after proving their worth in order to elicit emotion from the audience.

This is a reflection of “inspiration porn,” and it is deeply harmful, especially in media directed at children. Our kids need to know that people with disabilities are kind, trustworthy, and no one to be afraid of. We need to teach our loved ones that disabled people do not exist solely to inspire us and that disabled persons are just as worthy and capable of familial and romantic love as anyone else. We need to see disabled characters as heroes in their own right.

We also need to accept disabled persons regardless of whether or not their story includes healing of any kind. This acceptance can be difficult within church settings, where we often focus on healing narratives. Some priests might use stereotypes of healing in their homilies when expounding upon Gospel readings that feature Christ’s healing miracles, especially of the deaf and blind. We must be careful not to assume that all people experiencing disability desperately yearn for healing. Some do, but others don’t!

Disability and illness can be so challenging, both for the person experiencing it and for people who care for them. It can be painful, ostracizing, and confusing. But this should not mean that the end goal for all persons is perfect healing. It is neither realistic nor helpful to assume that a person’s existence should be oriented toward perfect healing, because there’s no such thing as perfect health in this life. Sickness, disability, and injury are a part of human life. Even if you are fortunate enough to have perfect health and live until a ripe old age, you will likely experience disabling conditions as a natural part of aging. What’s more, God is no less good and no less present in the life of a sick, injured, or disabled person if he or she never receives healing.

We also need to be careful about how we frame our discussions of Heaven. Some people in my extended family say things like, “I can’t wait to see what Matthew will be like in Heaven,” or “In Heaven, Matthew will be exactly as he should be.” Statements like these ones hurt, because they suggest that Matthew is some sort of mistake that God will work to rectify in this life and the next. We don’t know what Heaven will be like, nor do we know exactly what our bodies will be like when our souls are reunited with them. We do know that Jesus retained his wounds after his resurrection. We also know from Scripture (John 9:1-3) that disability is not a function of or punishment for sin (though some Christians still think so).

We should stop using disability as the go-to example of worldly suffering that will be rewarded with perfect healing, because doing so creates a narrative that we can somehow achieve or earn perfect health. But what happens when we don’t? We might feel we have failed, that our faith isn’t strong enough, or that God doesn’t love us.

Ableism and Our Own Bodies

The most insidious ableism is often the ableism with which we treat ourselves. Even as an able-bodied person with a disabled family member, I often catch myself being hard on myself when I’m not as productive, physically active, or alert as I think I should be. I catch myself saying, “If only you’d do X workout, take Y supplement, lose Z amount of weight, then you’d feel better and be a better person.”

Negative self-talk is often deeply ableist. When we expect ourselves to prove our worth through high levels of productivity, earn bodily autonomy through diet or exercise, or look like others in order to be accepted, we’re operating with the  assumption that one type of body is best — which suggests that all other bodies, whether yours or someone else’s, are bad. The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we love our disabled neighbors well and be anti-ableist if we perceive ourselves in an ableist way?

The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies.

Much of the work to combat ableism comes down to fully accepting bodies that won’t become the bodies we think of as “normal,” “healthy,” and “beautiful.” One way of doing so is offering a prayer that sounds like, “Lord, help me see that all bodies are good, exactly as they are.”

Self-hatred can run deep, as can grief around ourselves or our loved ones’ being disabled. Accepting all bodies as good can begin with working to think neutrally about our own bodies by not passing judgment on them. It means starting from “I am” or “It is” and moving to “I am good” or “It is good.” It means simply thinking, “This is how it looks and feels to be in this particular body. This is my body.”

I am.

I am.

This is my body.

This is my body.

It is good.

It is good.

Read Part 1 of the Disability and Catholic Feminism Series on FemCatholic HERE

*When I originally wrote this series, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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Disability & Catholic Feminism: Including Disability in Our Vocabulary

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.

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.

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.

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.

Suggestions 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.

Read Part 2 of the Disability & Catholic Feminism Series on FemCatholic HERE

*When I originally wrote this series, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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Dating a Non-Catholic

When I first announced my relationship with my now-fiancé to my parents, the first thing my dad said was, “Really? The least Catholic person you know?”

This was rich coming from a man who was not Catholic when he married my very Catholic mother and then converted 25 years later when he had truly and personally come to the faith (this was the crux of my rebuttal to his comment). In truth, his comment was the response I knew many of our friends and family shared but didn’t have the courage to say.

From the start, my boyfriend and I were drawn to each other because of our shared passion for leadership, learning, and serving others. We have always had fantastic conversations at the intersections of our scientific and theological studies. As we got to know each other more deeply, we discovered shared difficulties in our family lives growing up, a shared desire for self-improvement, and shared political beliefs.

Over the course of four years of friendship and dating other people, we discovered the uniqueness of our trust and honesty with each other, and attraction naturally grew. We have learned how to communicate effectively through three years of long distance dating and, through personal tragedy, we have come together to mourn and ask big questions about what “beyond” looks like. It seems to me that, if you removed the outside personas of “church girl” and “agnostic scientist,” our inner selves would look pretty darn similar.

We also still share many essential beliefs: that the ordering of the natural world implies the existence of an all-knowing, first-motion Creator; that there are mysteries that science cannot explain; that miracles happen; that we are both soul and body; and that service to the poor is the crux of the Gospel.

This is not to say that there have not been important conversations surrounding topics like marriage, sex, and children. It is with these subjects that most Catholics begin and end the conversation about dating a non-Catholic…

Read the rest at FemCatholic.com

*When I originally wrote this article, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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