“I’m just going to pray and believe for your son’s healing!” said the kind woman at the small group I was attending. I managed to force a tight smile because I knew she meant well, but my real thought was no thanks! My son has autism, and a number of other medical challenges. It’s a very interesting indicator of someone’s understanding of disability to see their reaction when I talk about his hospital visits, therapies and sensory meltdowns. It doesn’t make me angry when people don’t understand – before I had my son I knew little about autism and all its manifestations. I’ve had to learn a lot, so it’s part of my personal outreach to the world to teach them about my son, while I teach him how to navigate the world that isn’t often accommodating to him.
But it’s hard to know how to respond to someone deciding, unasked, to pray for him to be healed. What would that healing look like? Would it take away his phenomenally heightened sense of sound that allows him to hear things I can’t? Would he no longer have the incredible memory of every planet ever discovered and every satellite ever launched? Would I trade that for him no longer being so overwhelmed by noisy crowds that we rarely attend family events? Would it be worth losing some of his unique personality if it meant he gained the ability to hold a pencil correctly and write letters consistently?
This is the essence of disability. It means a person is “dis” able, or unable to do certain things that typical people take for granted and indeed instinctively believe all people can and should do. It doesn’t mean that someone is broken, or malformed, or automatically is wishing they were like everyone else. I think it’s more a reflection of the cultural values of strength, conformity, and health that we assume that any mention of a disability in the Christian world is also a cry for healing. If someone wants to pray for my son’s heart to be healed from the pain of seeing other people misunderstand and disapprove of his sudden need to run away from a loud noise, I fully support them. But that’s because all of us need our hearts healed from the pain of not being accepted for who we are.
But what does it mean if we believe God “formed you in your mother’s womb” and part of that forming included autism, Down’s syndrome or some other non-typical child? Can our understanding of the diverse range of human abilities include disabilities without viewing them as mistakes or punishments? Can we hold both truths – that those with disability and the families who care for them may carry a heavy burden, but also be incredibly blessed and fully celebrate that disabled person exactly as they are?
A doctor I was seeing for my own medical needs asked how my day to day stress level was. I said it was fairly high, as I cared for my son with autism and he has a tendency to shout, throw things, or try to run away (out the front door and into the street) when he’s scared. Without further information she firmly said, “Well, I’ll cure your son no problem, here’s what you need to do!” And she began to list supplements and other treatments she was sure would work (despite none of them being what is recommended by my son’s developmental specialist). I felt a sickening lurch in my gut and found the only thing I could do was tune out her voice. At that moment I realized offering to “cure” my son felt exactly like she had offered to erase his mind like a computer hard drive. Cure my son of his insatiable need to learn scientific information? Cure him of his blunt way of saying “that person LIED!” when he was told something wouldn’t hurt and it did? Yes, like with all children, there are things I hope my son will learn in time to do differently. And yes, it’s tempting sometimes to wish he didn’t have the struggles and challenges that lead to many moments of crying and despair. But who he is? I believe he and all people with disabilities are profoundly valuable exactly the way they are right now. Not in some future “heavenly” or “healed” state.
When Jesus heals the blind men in Matthew 9, he says, “According to your faith be it done to you.” Those men’s hearts desired healing. Perhaps because there were no resources or accommodation for blindness at that time. Or perhaps just because it’s what they wanted. But the healing came according to their hearts, not the assumptions of those around them for what would be “best.” It’s true that someone with a disability will have a harder time in certain aspects of life. But what other group would we consider it appropriate to say we would pray for those hardships to go away? Do we pray for people from under-resourced parts of India to become British because that would make life easier for them? Do we pray for people with dark skin to have lighter skin because they would be safer in encounters with police? It’s wrong to “pray away” the essence of who someone is, even if that essential fact does truly make life more challenging for them.
What if the people of Jesus were known as the ones working to make accessible spaces for those with disabilities? What if going to church meant going to a place where everyone was welcomed exactly as they are now, and humbly asked how the services, physical spaces and programs were suited to their individual needs? Then the body of Christ could truly be one with all of its members, and all of their abilities and disabilities. We all can use prayers for healing from the wounds that life leaves on our hearts. But let’s not be the ones who add to those wounds by a lack of acceptance and accommodation for those who have disabilities.