My Learning Experience in Disability Theology and Biblical Interpretation

Article—Issue 19 (February, 2016)

Nancy Nam Hoon TAN
Associate Professor

I have begun recently on a journey of learning and thinking about Interpretation of the Bible for the Disabled. It started off at a very personal level and then, after following a year-long course in Special Needs, I started to read about Disability studies and theology and to ponder how Biblical studies are related and how they may contribute. Of course, there are already Biblical scholars who have been working in this arena since the 90s. In this article, I would like to give a brief introduction to the subject (which I will approach in a personal way) and to share why it is an issue of importance for all of us.

From Special Needs to Disability Studies

First, how Special Needs (SN) become Disability Studies needs no explanation for those in the related academic fields but is necessary for the newcomer. My own starting point was to discover what is meant by SN. The classification or diagnosis of an individual with SN refers to one whose learning abilities do not fit with the general expectations of growth for her/his peers. These learning abilities include physical (e.g., learning to sit upright), social (e.g., learning to show acknowledgement when one’s name is called), emotional (e.g., learning to process different feelings), and cognitive (e.g., learning and remembering names of things and writing) capacities. As such, SN covers a wide spectrum; further, the term relates not just to a deficiency in any of the areas above, but also an excess. Thus, e.g., a gifted child or a child prodigy is also a SN individual. For the most part, it is to the deficiency that the greatest attention is paid, and “learning disability” is sometimes used as a synonym. However, for many professionals, this is felt to be inaccurate terminology, and rightly so. This is because “learning” is usually taken to refer to cognitive faculties but while individuals may not have any problem learning cognitively, other physical or neurological conditions prevent them from the usual learning experience.

SN can therefore be congenital or acquired (e.g., after a serious accident, or stroke) and usually has long-term effects to adulthood. Extending the wide spectrum of SN as mentioned above, it should also be noted that some may have a physical impairment which causes learning in some areas impossible (e.g., the blind can only learn the written language through braille and not by sight). In addition, some difficulties are of a neurological nature so that others can only discern them through their behaviors. Indeed, both these features could be present. For some SN conditions, individuals may be given external mechanisms to assist them to cope with learning life skills (e.g., special glasses and walking stick for the visually challenged) and in the case of others, they may be taught different ways to cope with learning skills necessary for survival. At the same time, there are also those whose cognitive ability is affected so that processing information even for learning simple life skills such as combing hair cannot be taken for granted. For most of these conditions, there is no cure, and in the majority of instances individuals discover alternative ways of doing things and learning new things.

The World Health Organisation (2008) defines disability as follows:

“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”[1]

In this definition, it is clear that disability is not just something that affects an individual, but also the society in which they live. Disability also can be temporary or permanent. For example, an individual may suffer temporary blindness due to a head injury, and becomes temporarily disabled until the nerve heals through rest, medication or surgery and the individual regains sight.

Therefore, SN can be understood as a subset of Disability, yet those gifted individuals with extreme IQ scores are not considered “disabled” unless they also suffer from one or more other conditions that qualify them to be so. As an academic discipline, Disability Studies takes account of SN individuals with deficient conditions.

My Personal Introduction to SN

My own journey started by reading the books available in our library on Asperger’s Syndrome and Austism Spectrum Disorder when my son was diagnosed with the condition. During the academic year 2013-2014, I took unpaid leave and returned to Singapore to rest and also to do an Advanced Diploma in Special Needs Education. My classmates on the course included those training to become SN teachers and counselors, but about half of us were parents, mainly mothers as well a few fathers, who shared similar reasons for doing the course in that our child/ren are SN. A most interesting feature was that for many of us our child/ren had already passed 18 years of age, and it was now that they had reached adulthood that we felt it was something we really wanted to do once we could manage the time and commitment for the course. This mutual understanding was a common bond and we greatly appreciated each other’s presence.

The course was an orientation to the wide spectrum of SN and in particular, the major conditions of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit/ Hyperactive Disorder (AD/HD), Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Sensory Integration (SI), all SN conditions which are common in Singapore. The purpose of the course was to train students to be allied educators, i.e., to support a SN individual cope in school and learning academic subjects as well as life skills. It included 30 hours of practicum where students were supervised in some of the SN schools in Singapore. I was deeply touched by the lives of the many SN individuals whom I observed and was assigned to assist, as well as by those of my supervisors, staff, my course lecturers, parents of SN and my classmates. They reflected the diverse ethnic and religious population represented in Singapore, which underlined how all of us are affected by the suffering of humanity, albeit in different degrees of intensity. At the same time, we all shared the same compassion and hope.

The Aim: Quality of Life

Because of the nature of the course, where most of the lecturers are practitioners in educational psychology, speech therapy, and occupational therapy, the emphasis on promoting the “quality of life” for SN individuals became primary. Quality of life here refers to the goal to attain independence in everyday living. However, I soon learned that this “independence” could also represent a different benchmark for different people. In the mainstream education system, it is the independence to thrive on the study materials that the teachers assign – because this is the everyday expectation for schooling children. But for the SN, it may just mean trying to cope with counting numbers correctly, or using the toilet facilities in the most hygienic way, or simply communicating appreciation to another human being. In general, it means SN individuals can improve their lives and attain a better state than where they are currently. I experience a profound hesitation in accepting this notion whole-heartedly, because it seems to me that somehow this definition of a “better state” is imposed on SN people by those of us who live in “able” bodies and minds, and or by a system (such as our education system); and it is our inherent rejection of their SN conditions which brings us back to the societal aspect of the definition of disability.

The Two Models of Disability

My struggle with the notion of improving the lives of the disabled can perhaps best be explained by how disability has been viewed historically. There are two models: medical and social/minority. The medical model has been with us since time past, where societies perceive disability as impairment, like a disease and only medicine can cure or rectify the condition. The aim is to seek a cure through medication, rejecting the condition and viewing the individuals with disabilities as defective, a liability to society and community and unable to contribute to the greater good for the community. With the rise of “Disability justice” propagated by activists within the disabled community, the second model, the social or minority model, arose in the 1970s. Disability justice argues for the rights of the disabled to not be discriminated against so that they may share public space equally. They may go to school, work, take transportation and shop and do all activities like everyone else. They have the right to facilities in such a way that public resources may be equally accessible for them. This means infrastructures should take them into consideration and provide alternative structures of mobility and accessibility. The activists also fought for their rights to procreate, because in the nineteenth century, laws were made to castrate those who are disabled. The social model basically argues that it is society which is responsible for the stigmatization. If society does not treat the disabled in discriminative ways, there is no “disability”.

A Third Model: the Limit Model

Recently, Deborah B. Creamer proposed a third approach, the Limit model.[2] She argues that all human beings have limits and each one of us, in our particular experiences, cope with our limits in different ways. Hence, “limit” per se, is not anything negative, but is a way of being realistic, accepting and appreciating the diversities and bringing creativity into our thinking about alternative means of coping with them. From a theological perspective, she argues that this third model takes into account the limitations of the two previous models, allowing, e.g., for individuals who have experienced the impairment of an organ to grieve and acknowledge the loss, yet at the same time to be able to live with the disability meaningfully and fully without marginalization from society.

I believe that Creamer has articulated a helpful theological framework for Disabilities Theology and studies to work with, although current academia continues to reflect the struggle between the two older models. The Limit model is broad enough to accommodate the wide spectrum of disabilities and acknowledge the individual’s experiences for becoming and being disabled. It emphasizes the humaneness of life and celebrates life as both fragile and resilient, which I feel are quintessential components for humanities subjects. And it is only through these factors that we can then articulate and appreciate the transcendent God.

At this point I would like to explain very briefly what Biblical Studies have contributed to the discourse on disability in the academia. There are a few landmarks: Saul Olyan’s Disability in the Hebrew Bible which attempts to trace a scriptural description of all the disabilities from physical to cognitive and emotional; and the collected essays in these two books: This Abled Body (eds. Avalos, et al) and Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (eds. Moss and Schipper).[3] The authors of these writings examine passages in the Bible that mention and describe specific disabled conditions and reinterpret these texts in such a way as to reclaim dignity and respect for the disabled community rather than to stigmatize people as the early church did in using these texts as a means to deny them the right to be treated as a human being, or at best only as recipients of charity and compassion, otherwise to be ostracised. For example, the dumb are treated with contempt because the gospels depict the dumb as being in need of exorcism (Matt. 9:32; 12:22); and the blind and deaf as impervious to God’s word (Deut. 28:29; Matt. 23:16- 26); and those with skin diseases as barred from God’s presence (Lev. 13-14). Some of these recent contributions also look into the extant regional literature, such as that of the ancient Near East and the Greek and Roman texts, to shed light on the biblical depictions. They are all illuminating and enlightening explorations, and most importantly they promote an openness to the possibility of readings from the point of view of the wide spectrum of “disabled” conditions that are generalized in the biblical texts. Hence, there is no one “final” interpretation – although each interpretation remains steadfast to the integrity of the language and contexts of the text. Most of the contributors to the volumes are names found at the forefront of such helpful interpretations, namely, Jeremy Schipper, Hector Avalos, Joel S. Baden, Sarah Melcher, among others. For my own part, I have recently begun working on a project to re-interpret “The Image of God in the Hebrew Bible for the Disabled” (Direct Grant, 2015-16).

Seminar for Institute of Disability and Theology (SITD) 2015

Before concluding, I would like to share two experiences I had when I attended the SITD 2015 gathering, held in May at Atlanta, Georgia USA. It was my first time to attend this seminar. While most of the attendees were Christians, the committee had invited speakers who included non-religious, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Many of the speakers and attendees were disabled themselves, and some were activists; and like the classmates I had met on my course, we were all touched by disability in different ways.

In their sharing by the disabled present at the meeting, two things struck me: (1) all of them detest people telling them they must be or should be “healed” because it is part of their belief system and is necessary to testify to the greatness of their God/s; (2) whatever their condition is, it also makes them who they are and it is beyond their imagination that this should or must change when they “get to heaven”. In other words, if they are deaf, they cannot imagine themselves in heaven not signing when talking to God, or if they are dependent on the wheelchair being without it. These factors made them who they are and what they have become. They do not deny that some want to be able to speak or walk or run again or have a “healed body”, and of course they may continue to hope for that; but there are those who think otherwise. To hear these two voices from their personal stories moved me and left a profound mark on me.

The second experience occurred when we all had to board the public transport that took us from the hostel to the site of the seminar. As mentioned, there were many participants who were disabled in different ways and with different types of assistive instruments to aid mobility. While some of us helped them to board the bus, the bus driver had to leave her/his driver’s seat and personally ensure each safety belt was fastened correctly and safely before driving us to our destination. This inevitably took time, but all of us were patient and friendly. I pondered deeply about how some of our societies have distorted our reality by putting away people with disabilities so that they are not seen in the public, or they only have special transportation so that they are “discretely” dealt with and the rest of the world would not feel imposed upon by their presence with regards to time and space. Consequently, many of us do not know how to react, help or respond appropriately in a humane way when we see a disabled individual. We do not understand or appreciate when an individual has a meltdown, for instance, or what we can do to help because the general public at large has not observed the person since their childhood and throughout their daily lives.

Our society has blinded us to the reality of humanity, and we live in a constructed world where we do not have the time, energy and inevitably any heart to see, touch, or share our space, time and lives with those who have different abilities and who function differently from us. We become impatient and apathetic, dismissive and discriminative towards individuals with disabled conditions. We deem them an inconvenience and a liability to society at large.

Concluding words...

Even if we would not take thought for Creamer’s remark that “should we all live long enough we would all be disabled”, it is imperative for us to think about disabilities for the mere fact that we are all human beings. And if we believe in a transcendent God who suffers with, and also helps, us in our limitations, all the more do we need to re-think and re-articulate how our messages, our biblical interpretations and our theology can become such that they affirm the dignity of all humanity and cease to be discriminatory; how we can listen to the experiences and struggles of Christian identities and recognize how Church dogmas and traditions limit their expression; and how we can strive for justice where oppression and inequality towards God’s creation are imposed.

What I have shared here has barely scratched the surface of the subject. Among the disabled groups, I find the most difficult group to understand are those who are severely intellectually challenged by virtue of the fact that many of them have limited expression of their thoughts in a way that we can comprehend. Thus, it is hard to speak for them and their needs. This profound silence speaks of the deep spirituality and creativity that God wills his creation to appreciate and embrace.

Finally, I hope all of you who have read this article can appreciate my learning journey in this area and be encouraged to join me, not only to study diligently, meditate and pray earnestly, but also to make the effort to understand and learn, to be actively present and share your time, space and lives with those who are differently abled than us. Nancy Tan volunteers regularly at the Wai Ji Christian Service.


  1. ^ Cf. (accessed 17/08/15). It should also be noted here that definitions of the terms “impairment”, “disability”, and “handicap” continue to be under debate because of the political implications for the general welfare systems, etc. Cf., e.g., Steven D. Edwards, Disability: Definitions, Value and Identity (Oxford: Radcliffe, 2005).
  2. ^ D.B. Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (NC: Oxford University, 2008).
  3. ^ Saul Olyan, Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Disabilities (NC: Cambridge, 2008); Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher and Jeremy Schipper (eds.), This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007); Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper (eds.), Disabilities and Biblical Literature (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).