Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The New Miracles

 The New Miracles: a response to Katie Booth, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Classical tragedies revolve around a plot line of a character who acts out of a perceived noble intent. However, the character overlooks a flaw in that intent, and that flaw ultimately brings the character down. There’s a way in which this is true of Alexander (Alec) Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Bell sought to make communication easier—but in the process, overlooked that he sought to quash a culture. His efforts to promote oralism and bring an end to the use of sign language, and his promotion of early eugenics, have left a legacy that Deaf people still contend with, even though the end result has been to open new channels of communication. 

Booth explores this complex legacy as she opens the book with a story about her Deaf grandmother being in a hospital. Whenever grandmother sought to sign with someone, “she was treated as a bother,” and the staff would only respond to Booth or her mother’s spoken requests (3). Some discussion of law corrected parts of that problem, but it led to reflection on her grade school history classes, where she learned that Bell invented the telephone. This seemed “as absurd as introducing Adolf Hitler as a vegetarian who once ruled over Germany” (12).


cover of the book, a portrait of Bell

Pursuing a more complete story, Bell’s work began with his father, who sought to devise a universal alphabet for missionaries. Using this, they could read the Bible aloud in any language, even they didn’t understand it. (We’ll save the theological discussion of this notion for another post). Believing that speech was what made one human, it followed that any sentient being needed to learn to speak—with a voice, not with signs. Despite abundant examples, which included his own mother, Bell stuck with that notion, which led to the idea that being Deaf was a burden, a marker of an unacceptable difference, and something to be eliminated through training and marriage restrictions.

Bell lived in a time of change: industrialization was creating systems emphasizing and transforming “normal” from mathematics to identity and proclaimed them as the path to a new age through eugenics. “Freak” became the umbrella term for racial, ethnic, developmental, gender, and physical differences. The tragic flaw enters: there is little indication that Bell was insensitive to suffering and inequality. Booth recounts several instances where he was distressed by racial discrimination. But, in a move that we all might be forced to confess, he did not recognize his own involvement in “a larger struggle between normalcy and difference, between saving and being saved, between empowerment and charity” (77), thus setting the stage for the tragic character’s downfall.

John Wesley was an admirer of the classics and early church fathers who struggled with these concerns. Today’s “nothing about us, without us” was not yet a motto, but concerns that those on the margins should be heard are clear from his writings. He famously “consented to be more vile” – to change his ways in seeking inclusion. Sadly,  Bell followed the thinking of many in his time who saw defects as something to be eliminated rather than embrace more social models and accommodation. Today the struggle continues: do people who are different have “special needs” or functional requirements? Are they included in leadership, or are they a target group (ministry with or ministry to)? Is a difference a weakness to be hidden? As the author notes, does empowerment come through assimilation or recognizing and honoring diversity? We still struggle, which is why the classics are still with us. The new miracle, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, will come when we harness the energy of love, the love that was central to Wesley.  

Normal abnormal disclaimer: much to the chagrin of various greedy corporations, I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and even though they no longer charge late fines, I did return it on time.




Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Bonnie Sherr Klein, Beep Beep Bubbie (illustrated by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal),

Vancouver: Tradewind Books, 2020 (ISBN 978192689023)

Am I reverting to childhood? After enjoying Doorkins the Cathedral Cat, now I’m reading another children's book and enjoying it, too. But then, in Matthew 18, we are told that Jesus of Nazareth said we should be like children. Full beep ahead!

It’s a charming story. Bubbie is the grandmother of two siblings, Kate and Nate. She arrives for a visit on a new scooter that beeps a lot. The group rides away on the bus to a market. Here they have a great time (told in story and art).

cover: a woman riding a scooter, pulling a kite in the air, along a lake

Along the way, there’s a lot to think about. The children face their fears and deal with them. At first, Kate is afraid that Bubbie has changed by using the scooter. But as the story proceeds, Kate learns that the scooter, like all mobility devices, is a helpful tool. The person using it is still the same beloved character.

The children also learn some history. Bubbie tells them that “long ago, people who had trouble walking were stuck indoors” (6). Although the pandemic has interfered recently, people with disabilities are no longer expected to stay at home and hide. Even the “ugly laws” and many other ableist restrictions have been repealed or removed—although anyone who tries to scoot or wheel around most areas will find that a lot of infrastructure problems remain.

For one infrastructure concern, there’s riding the bus, with all of its steps. No problem, the children learn, as the bus has a ramp. Some of us who’ve had a lot of public transit experience will be happy to learn that the ramp works and the operator knows how to use it. When the group gets on the bus, some some people complain that they have to move to clear the access space. Remarkable, isn’t it, that we also have to clear able-bodied parkers and whatnot out of accessible parking spaces.

accessible space blocked by snow plowing
blocked accessible space

At the park, other children are shown using wheelchairs, and the text states that they make friends. After playing and enjoying the market, they return, where there’s another history lesson. At home, Kate starts reading and learns about Frances Willard, who named her bicycle Gladys. In a sign of acceptance, she asks if they can name the scooter Gladys and decorate it.

In the end, this is a wonderful story about learning, one that points out many dimensions of disability and the effects of accessibility. Go Gladys!--and the next time someone asks if I want a bicycle horn for my wheelchair, I may say yes.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an electronic copy of the book in response to a call for reviews on the Disability Studies in Humanities group.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Opening prospects

Lana Portolano. Be Opened!: The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021. 336 pp. $33.66, paper, ISBN 978-0-8132-3339-0.

The author describes this book as a Deaf pilgrimage: a hearing person’s overview of history, Catholic Deaf culture, and language. Her interest was sparked by adoption of a Deaf child. In a parallel of the path of many parents of children with any disability, her entrance into Deaf culture was without any background, personal experience, or guidance. To her credit, rather than assume that she knew the child’s needs, she pursued an informed path and then shared it with us.

The title is drawn from a pericope in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus cures a Deaf man by saying, “Be opened!” These words become a recurring theme in the book, a point of both critique and a prospect of hope. Portolano notes in opening the topic that the baptismal ritual once stated that the purpose of the sacrament is to touch the candidate’s ears so as to receive the divine word. When applied to the Deaf, this reflects an attitude of ableism, in common with many religious uses of disability metaphors. It also reflects attitudes that the condition requires medical or other intervention, rather than being a social difference that requires cultural adjustment. The need for such adjustment becomes, throughout the book, a call to the church and other social institutions to change their ways.
cover of book, title with photo of a group standing and lifting hands
The book is divided into two parts: the first, a chronological narrative that is primarily organized geographically, and a second that covers more recent events, concluding with future prospects and needs. A central development in this history is the development and acceptance of sign languages, which in turn supports a Deaf culture. In turn, that acceptance becomes one aspect of recognizing disability rights. It is also essential in the development of a friendlier theological stance.

The nature of disability has been a long-standing religious issue. In the traditional medical model, it is considered a deviation from normal, animpairment that needs to be corrected. Theologically, these deviations have often been considered a recompense for sin. So it is not surprising that Deaf advocates have maintained that they are not disabled, but are a cultural minority. More recent social models cite deficiencies in attitudes and infrastructure, such as the lack of physical access (e.g., ramps, elevators) or, as is often the case here, the lack of captions or use of signed language. As this social model has gained ground, theologians have come to emphasize this approach as respecting diversity in creation, not deficit.

At some points, the chronological narrative is a challenge to follow across the geographical lines. However, there are common themes, one of which is sign languages. With a long history, they were a tool that opened the door to Deaf education. But they were also an oral tradition in an increasingly text-oriented world, and thus much is lost. The main narrative begins with sixteenth-century Catholic schools. One will find familiar figures here, such as Laurent Clerc (1785-1869), who began his religious life in the Catholic Church, and many who are obscure. One will also be reminded of social and political differences. With Clerc as an example, after some early work in England, he met Thomas Gallaudet (1787-1851), who invited him to the United States where he established a nonreligious public school. The story of Roman Catholic developments is intertwined with others, particularly among Anglicans and Methodists, whose work often predated that of Catholics. Another concern is that Deaf people are scattered, and only recently has technology been able to bridge this gap. Thus, in a manner similar to Black churches (as noted by Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans, 1997), these institutions often became community bases for Deaf people and denominational boundaries were secondary. Another aspect is that in the United States, government-funded schools became common by the mid-nineteenth century. Although nominally disestablished, they often had strong Protestant leanings, obscuring the work of Catholics.

Theological issues are also part of the story. The passage in Mark is the only place where Jesus communicates with a Deaf person, which he does by cure. Some take this as an instruction to reject sign language—but the author protests: they have not read the story carefully, as it implies the use of signs to summon the man from the crowd. A similar situation exists with statements such as “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10.17). There are also stories of reversal: St. Francis de Sales, who would be named the patron saint of Deaf people, was friends with a Deaf man named Martin and learned signing from him. When a nobleman asked Francis if teaching the young man was worth the effort, and if it would not have been easier to pray for a miraculous cure, Francis replied that he had learned so much from Martin through their friendship that it never occurred to him to ask God to make Martin a hearing person for his own convenience.

The theological explanations also include points that may not be obvious to non-Catholics, such as a requirement to use valid forms or words during the Mass and absolution. Because of this, early Deaf candidates for orders spent decades in limbo, awaiting rulings from Rome. This began to change with the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, whose approval of vernacular languages seemed to clear the way for sign languages, which by this time were recognized as full languages. 

As social movements produced disability legislation, the church found a path for participation through its long-standing social justice tradition. Coupled with the waves of disability rights movements and legislative affirmation, this has brought back the question of disability vis-à-vis cultural difference. A possible resolution seems to be in the social model coupled with liberation theology, a movement that began among Latin American Catholics. One example is the ecumenical Claggett Statement of 1985, which states that Deaf people do not need to be cured of an impairment but do need relief from social exclusion and cultural oppression. It also charges churches to end the practices of charity that portray their objects as disadvantaged, to consider differences to be gifts, and to develop forms of worship that convey the Deaf culture.

These trends are reflected in the ongoing flowering of Deaf culture after Vatican II, spurred by technologically aided movements and cross-cultural understanding. A result has been the emergence of a “Deaf World” that identifies a diaspora with a bond of deafness that transcends other cultural difference. Building on this idea, Deaf members have established networking associations and become leaders, pastors, and role models. Yet, noting that many see the church as a “hearing institution” that overlooks them, the author lists still-needed changes, such as national offices, seminary training, and more use of modern media. Direction is needed in effective delivery to both hearing and Deaf audiences, Eucharistic prayers and liturgy in sign language, and theological questions on the use of female or non-Catholic interpreters.

I find hope in this book as well as challenge. Susan White notes in Christian Worship and Technological Change (1994) that a historic theological focus on texts overlooks technological advances (recall that Portolano cites textual focus as a reason for loss of Deaf history, which is generally an oral tradition). If we turn with open minds, using visual arts to relate stories through such media as statuary and stained glass windows would be comparable to encouraging the use of video screens and social media today. At the same time, technology is always a two-edged sword: technological devices such as cochlear implants are often viewed as an attempt to erase the culture, so the future remains open.

As a postscript, the book has a useful companion website, https://www.icfdeafservice.org/beopened, with examples of sign language and liturgy. No log-in is required to use it.

Also published at H-Net Reviews.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No
Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Holy Time, Batman!

Review and response:

Hendren, Sara. What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Every day, every person meets and is at odds with the built environment. Thus begins this book from a professor of design who includes accessibility in her classes. The book's several chapters illustrate how everyday construction and attitudes create disabling conditions and offers some examples of how it can be changed. Thus the book presents numerous examples, ranging from lowered picture mounting heights to lecterns to curb cuts and even construction materials.


book cover (text on yellow background)

This narrative reinforces the claim that the essence of the social model of disability is that it is environmental factors, such as infrastructure, and not physical impairments, the functioning of one's eyes or ears, or neurological differences which create what we call disability.

I noted a similar argument in reading Jonathan Mooney’s book Normal Sucks (see “…just a setting on the dryer”). Mooney finds peace with his status, and Hendren reaches further: “disability” is no longer a derisive word, but a proud one, and a reminder of (and also a reminder to) the movement that turned another derisive word into a proud one—Christians. When we better understand the principles behind what we practice, and look at our sources without the encrustations of culture, we can find a new way of doing things. Hendren puts this principle to use by tackling design not as a problem, but as a way to fit function to design. The result is what she refers to as charisma (7-8), an interesting choice: in its origins, χαρις is a divine gift. 

In the face of charisma, far too often, “normal” has exerted tyranny: it seems that we must fit in, listen to the loudest, and conform. No wonder that the apostle Paul also told early Christians not to conform to everyone else’s ideas (Romans 12.2)—and it’s good advice for designers, too, as well as wisdom that reaches beyond religious boundaries. Design the world for all, with all their differences. In the end, no body is average and every body is at war with the built environment. But some are given deficit labels like “weak” while others are socially accepted (do you know anyone who considers eyeglasses to be corrective of disability?)—don’t be conformed.

Resisting normal requires reframing who and what we call the problem. What disabled me were limitations not in myself, but within the environment.

This book is highly recommended for thoughtful consideration about the shape of the world: buildings, streets, institutions, language and descriptions, cultural organizations, centers of power, the layout of rooms, how we move through spaces. It is a use-centered view that asks what users need first. In addition to the obvious physical items that we often think of, the author also considers design for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people—again, a social matter, as we know how to design for all, but often don’t.

This is not only for Christians, but it does call those in churches to think about disability. Religious and non-religious ethical values point to standing firm on one's beliefs that should include kindness and thoughtfulness to all. They also point to self-evaluation, and too many churches have forgotten their original calls to practice justice towards all and service beyond nationality.

Time is included in design. We have come to accept the constraints of an industrialized world where everything is scheduled, a world where one must not only be busy, but be busy at an approved rate. We live by the clock. First developed by those outside the mainstream to mark the rhythms of sacred time, clocks have now become a ruler also, one that disconnects us from the body and the seasons. For one example, why do we tolerate school times that require children to walk or wait in the darkness, being killed or injured, or disrupt everyone’s psyche twice a year for “daylight savings”? 

Time measures one of the prejudices against people with disabilities. Don’t be conformed—the early Christians, among others, distinguished the proper time, xρονος from the time of the clock, καιρος. The ancients still have something to teach us. 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with an agreement that I would return it within three weeks. I did this, even though the library no longer levies fines for late returns. 


Friday, July 30, 2021

Disability Pride Month—Toward a Bottoms Up! theology of disability

A review and reflections: Joerg Rieger, No Religion but Social Religion: Liberating Wesleyan theology. Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2018.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us….
- - -
“To A Louse,” Robert Burns

Honored more in the breach, this popular saying reminds us that a first step in approaching theology is to remove one’s own “blinders” so that we may see the “structures of sin” that surround us. To make his point, Rieger tells a story of a presentation explaining that John Wesley’s theology is a reversal of top-down religion. At a faculty meeting, the hearers seemed unable to grasp the problem. At a meeting of disadvantaged high schoolers, the message was clearly understood, and discussion added to his store of examples.

This story came to mind when I saw a notice promoting a “freedom” rally against critical race theory (among other things) in a neighboring suburb. The notice was unravaged by the onerous demands of fact. For those who have ears and will hear (or read), this theory is an historical process that suggests  we look at formative principles, examine foundations, and learn how they have affected later developments so that we can set out ways in which lasting change may be created, much as Isabel Wilkerson does in Caste

From such analysis, we find links that couple the foundations of the social model of disability and critical race theory. One of Rieger’s principles in this book is often mentioned in discussing disability theology—the unity of the body of Christ, and, in particular, the need of each part for the others, derived from 1 Corinthians 12:21 and Ephesians 4 (the RCL Epistle reading for the 18th week in Ordinary Time, which in 2021 falls on August 1). The way we live, and how we deal with disadvantaged people, does matter. 

This also reminds us that, God is not at the top of an hierarchy, as most theology would have us think. Theology is the work of the people, asking where God is in our world—this is the meaning of kenosis (Philippians 2.7). Wesley set us an example, ministering to the lowest in the society of his day. It was not a patriarchal act of charity, but one of solidarity and refutation of power structures.

I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top tot he bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

The ultimate expression of solidarity is inclusion. One form of inclusion, following Wesley’s footsteps, is ministry with, not to. It is not bombarding those thought to be outsiders with weaponized “truth,” but hearing the call of the disadvantaged and realizing that we are all one. As Rieger writes, “deep solidarity does not imply that we forget about our differences; the opposite is the case: deep solidarity enables us to find ways to make use of our differences for the common good” (78). 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library and thereby agreed to return it in three weeks, which I did. Joerg Rieger was my German examiner at the Graduate School in Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, and impressed me by being perceptive enough to have me read about Wesley's social thought through German theologians. Maybe that's why I passed on the first try.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

… just a setting on the dryer

 A review and response to Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks: how to live, learn, and thrive outside the lines (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019).

What does it mean to be normal?

A young white girl in 1960's clothing asks her mother, what is normal. Mother replies, it's just a setting on the dryer

This a meme I used to introduce the topic “the fraud of normalwhen teaching 20th century historical developments. It often drew the interest of the diverse lot of aspiring artists in the class.

Mooney starts his exposition much as I did—noting that “normal” is only a fiction of statistics, and while the idea has been around for some time, it gained particular prominence at a historical time of  social change. The idea of normalcy has a history, and much of it is related to the history of ranking and stratification that has created a caste-effect in modern life. Both of these have roots and effects in emerging divisions in the middle of the 20th century, and they continue today, reaching far beyond their origins as distinctions become accepted standards.

One often hears the saying “history is written by the victors,” and so are social standards. In a parallel to history, “normal is what is called normal by people who are called normal” (36). That leads to an inherent bias, which is why I challenge those who talk about “history is there whether you like it or not” to include more than the accounts of the winners in their statements.

 “Normal” is a form of self-justification from a group holding power. One of the results of this phenomenon of self-justification is the casual use of various slurs in everyday language, which leads to a lack of recognition of the reality of the problems from many in a place of privilege (for an example, see “The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use). In a steadily compounding spiral, society compounds its habits of overlooking the contributions that people who are different bring to the table.

The effects of this enforcement of “normal” have been devastating, resulting in invisibility and dehumanization. The idea of eugenics grew from its fascination with removing difference, coupled with quantification movements (i.e., statistics that measured deviation), all focusing on isolating and labeling some people as a problem.

To learn more about the effects of any change, one should ask what life was like before the event. In the case of normality, historical documents show us that differences were once celebrated, perhaps with an attitude that they encompassed touch of eccentricity or oddness, but accepted as part of a diverse world. It was the rise of the field of statistics in an increasingly scientific-oriented society that gave an impetus to the idea. By 1914, 36 states had institutions that segregated anyone considered “feeble-minded” and by 1930, 41 states banned non-eugenic marriage or practiced forced sterilization. In 1935, such ideas became the law in Germany. We know how that went, don’t we?

The idea of normal is also where the popular modern inspiration porn slogan of “overcoming” disability comes from. It proclaims that enough heroic effort can do anything, which led the late Stella Young to critique the popular aphorism that “the only disability is a bad attitude” as she reminded us that “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” 

This book is highly recommended (along with Mooney’s Facebook page)as another example of the new day for many that has come with the growth of the civil rights movement and its social theory of disability: what disables me is not anything of myself, but the environment. With that, the theological world has slowly begun to see disability, like any difference, as an element that is to be honored as part of the divine plan“Am I normal? No, I’m not. No one is” (216). There is no one way to be a human—to be human is to be diverse.

Disclaimer: once again, I have irritated Amazon by borrowing this book from the Indianapolis Public Library. As per agreement with them, I returned it within the specific time period, and hope that others are now appreciating it as well.




Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A change in subscribing

The powers that be of Blogspot have decided, in their infinite wisdom, to drop the feature which allowed some of you to subscribe and receive the posts by e-mail. So I started an announcement-only group. In order to subscribe, send a blank e-mail to flyingkittymonster+subscribe@googlegroups.com.

Thanks for reading!