Disability Studies and Intercultural Theology

Eberhard Werner: werner (at) research institute (dot) net


Until today, intercultural theology has not done much research in the field of disability studies. In particular, this applies to research on actors who themselves have had physical or mental limitations, or research that focuses on those with such challenges. For the former, some biographies do not explicitly address disability experience. Examples are for the latter, the founders of the Christian agencies Luise A. Cooper for the Hildesheimer Blindenmission (HBM) and Ernst Jakob and Hedwig Christoffel for the Mission of the Blind in the Orient, today Christoffel Blindenmission (CBM). This article will cover the history, motivation, and discourses around disability studies that arise from these fields of Christian activity. The interdisciplinary approach of intercultural theology determines the parameters to be applied in order to delineate the boundaries to the social sciences.

Disability Studies – an Overview

Disability Studies are composed of a multitude of individual disciplines. Disability History deals with historical relationships around people with physical or mental limitations (e.g. Nielsen 2013). Disability Worlds deals with life worlds, embodiment and social references and spaces of encountering people with and without physical or mental limitations (e.g. Whyte & Ingstad 1995). Disability Anthropology depicts ethnographic-biographical life worlds of physically and mentally challenged people (e.g., Gelya Frank 2000). Disability and Gender describes the power movements and the influences on people with physical or mental limitations with regard to the gender question. The special disadvantage of disabled women is in this regard (e.g. Jacob, Köbsell & Wollrad 2010, Boll, Ewinkel et al., 1985). Disability Theology describes the exegetical and hermeneutical deficits with regard to people with physical or mental limitations in theology (e.g. Young 2011). Disability Missiology is a currently evolving discipline. In this context, it is questioning historical descriptions based on inclusion, exclusion or discrimination of people with physical or mental challenges. As part of postcolonial studies, these relationships are captured in intercultural theology. At the same time, the proceedings of the Christian aid research are made available in foreign contexts by disabled researchers or concerning a target group of people with physical or mental challenge. Because the life worlds of people with and without physical or mental limitations are in constant motion due to social, political and environmental changes, this list cannot be conclusive.

Normality and otherness – Research on Normalism

Disability Studies (DS) negotiate aesthetic and social discourses that move between the categories “normality” and “abnormality, deviation” (Schildmann 2009: 204-205). The definition of these social parameters is dependent on culture and environment. In the European social environment, a visual impairment is less sanctioned, in the Asian contexts, for example, an aesthetic deviation is more sanctioned as mobility impairment (for general classification see Cloerkes 2007: 124-125). Such categories define the terms “normality” and “deviation”, they are framed by the sociological categories of discrimination, exclusion and rejection. The power flow in social reactions is always directed against the supposedly weaker, but this may vary, as the definition of “normality” and “abnormality” is in flux. Inclusion, as currently being discussed, seeks to broaden the perspective on “normality” by extending the standard notions of “norm” and “normality” to people with physical or mental limitations. Accessibility to buildings and the Internet will bring about the participation and presence of previously excluded people not getting a chance to contribute to the social life of a society.

Expanded “Normality”

In the context of public perception and given the active exchange of life experiences by people with and without physical or mental limitations, the understanding of “normality” or “norm” expands. At the same time, there is a meeting place of the life worlds of people with and without physical or mental restrictions, which reduces the fear of contact and prejudices. However, one must not forget to say that ideological fears, such as racism, nationalism or Ableism (hatred of disabled people) are also (un)consciously stoked. Migrants, those living with state help, unemployed lone parents, or sexually same-sex-oriented people with physical or mental disabilities are the main causes of such fears. These groups of people represent social diversity and touch those whose ideological orientation targets a society that does not allow for pluralism.

Transcultural-transnational aspects Disability Studies

A look into the transcultural perception of disability and the disabled raises the question of universals. Disability, as a universal phenomenon has been and will be socially sanctioned or stigmatized everywhere and at all times due to the fact of “Otherness” that reminds humans that they at all times and stakes could become part.

Universals of transcultural encounter “Disability”

In addition to the external physical sanctioning, as expressed in structural obstacles or lack of resources, goes the internal social sanctioning, ranging from ignorance, Ableism to euthanasia. Historically, Plato (here de polis) and Aristotle are approached here by their social application of killing newborns with physical or mental damage. Those were denied a “soul”, in the sense of the non-mortal essence of humans; they were considered lifeless or worthless. In later social Darwinism, this is again taken up. The philosophical idea behind is Utilitarism, the idea of ​​usefulness, for both the individual himself as well as for the collective that is the society. A social being, according to the conclusion of Plato, which is not consistently functional, must be taken off a society or in other words, a society must get rid of his “useless” participants. In consequence, the selection goes pre-birth if there is a risk for the mother or the deficits of an unborn is known (abortion, infanticide). In Brave New World (1932, Aldous Huxley) this utopia is written down. At the end of the 20th century, bioethicist Peter Singer puts it in a nutshell when he calls for abortion, early pre-natal diagnosis and the pre-selection of human characteristics as a necessary and responsible way of planning society. In his opinion, this protects future generations from unnecessary costs and builds societies that can meet their needs. In contrast to this utilitarian approach, there has been an inclusivist movement that seeks to integrate and empower people with physical or mental disabilities. It is tragically evident that the physical and mental damage resulting from war traumas (World War I and WWII) brought with it the need for rehabilitation and, thus (re)integration. At the same time, these guidelines limited the ability of people with physical or mental disabilities to recover lost abilities. The “normal” was the standard and stigmatized those affected to re-access the life worlds of the “normal”. The stigmatization as “others” became the basis of all thinking and acting about people with physical or mental limitations. The formation of one’s own life worlds, ways of life and interfaces to other living realities are not taken into account, encouraged or desired in this approach. The driving force is health care, which, in direct collaboration with the world of work, reduces participation in the community in terms of employability and rehabilitation, preparation and the introduction back into it. Remaining social niches such as art, humanities or creative life forms are reserved for only a few people with physical or mental limitations and are rarely financially attractive.

Social Aspects – Occupational Inclusion

Social sanctions must be consciously and purposefully overcome by the community. The political fight against Ableism (disability hostility) is a laborious and persistent urge for inclusion and shifting the perception of “normality” towards the inclusion of people with physical and mental challenges. The social limits are reached where the community has to guarantee public security and service. Thus, certain safety-related professions (e.g., police service, fire service readiness, and emergency services) remain closed to people with certain physical and mental limitations, as far as they cannot offset their restrictions. Only a subsequent disability allows participation e.g. office work. Physical fitness plays an important role here. However, as these professions require an exceptional level of ability, which is already demonstrated by the qualifications in the job (e.g. physical and mental abilities), they do not represent the social “norm” of the professional world.

Intercultural Christian aid – Pedagogy as Inclusion

In the encounter with foreign or other cultures, the position of the actor is of no minor importance. In the colonial era, the Western Christian actor was the initiator and financially controlling center for the processes of intercultural encounter. Due to militarily supported financial superiority, the locals or local actors were controlled. This is illustrated by the example of Ernst Jakob and Hedwig Christoffel, as they sought to help visually impaired people in East Anatolia, first in 1904-1907 in Sivas, from 1908-1923 in Malatya and later in Tabriz and Isfahan (Thüne 2007: 31, 66). Although they were destitute, in prayer and public presentation they began to proclaim their idea of ​​an orphanage for visually impaired girls in eastern Anatolia. They were able to build on their three years of educational experience in orphanage work in this area. Since several Christian aid agencies had focused on this type of aid, the combination of education and care was nothing new, but the focus on people with visual impairments. Previous attempts on orphaned visually impaired girls are found in the China-oriented Hildesheimer Blindemission founded by Luise Cooper (*1849-†1931) in 1890 (Ortmann 2017:13). The focus on people with visual impairment has to do with the development of Braille (1825) and the perception of the ability of education. Before they were stigmatized by being ineducable or capable of learning, like most people with a disability.

Historical Review – Christian Aid in the Orient

In the 19th century the main players of Christian aid in the Orient became

  • the ABCFM (American Board of Christian Foreign Mission),
  • the BFBS (British and Foreign Bible Society),
  • the German Orient Mission (Dr. Johannes Lepsius, *1858- †1926; DOM from 1916 LDOM),
  • and the German Hülfsbund for Christian works of love in the Orient (Ernst Lohmann, *1860-†1936) presented in Baumann (2007).

They are preceded by the Syrian orphanage (Fam. Schneller) in Jerusalem with its offshoots from the sixties of the 19th century. Striking in all these approaches is the focus on children in a state of need of help or worse emergency (loss of parents or the nuclear family). To care for those is a foundational deeply political mission of the state (here the Ottoman Empire). The Western perspective was on only the lack of government intervention. It must be assumed that the Christian motivation was aimed at turning towards the faith model of the Western development workers. At this point post-colonialist aspects come to the fore, since the military interventions of the German Reich were suitable to not only place financial but also personnel forces in the Ottoman Empire. The Anglophone, American, and British Ecclesiastical Development Aid had made a similar experience since the beginning of the nineteenth century with the governments of the Ottoman Empire. The above-mentioned institutions and organizations had concentrated on the entire Ottoman Empire and met in the course of their activities on the major ethnic groups of the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia. From this period come ethnographic studies of the large “Kurdish” ethnic groups. Today these are Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), Sorani (Central or South Kurdish), Behdeni, and the Kermānshāh dialects. The area extends from eastern Turkey, western Iran to northern Iraq. Christoffe such, had focused into the ethnic groups of eastern Anatolia. The Armenians, the Aramaeans, the Zaza and the Kurmanji speakers, however, they were only able to focus on Turkish and Armenian due to their specialization in visually restricted orphans. Their developed sign languages ​​have significantly contributed to the breakthrough in the perception and inclusion of this group of people. Despite many setbacks by the two world wars, for example in Iran, a care for these social groups has developed that allows participation at various social levels. This shown for example, the film The Colors of Paradise (1999) by Majiid Majiidi. Also in today’s Turkey, a welfare apparatus has evolved, evidently in Seeing Is not Everything: Living Blind in Turkey at AlJazeera World [https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2015/10/turkey- blind-151021071833072.html] by Eylem Kaftan. The documentation shows four lifestyles of visually impaired people from Istanbul. This must not deceive the fact that the social possibilities are far from being creatively exploited in order to perceive people with physical or mental limitations as a full social counterpart nor even to be inclusive-minded.

Inclusion – Diversity and Unity in Diversity

At this point, it is helpful to understand the concept of inclusion. Inclusion, according to today’s perception, replaces or absorbs the thoughts of participation and integration. The paradigm shift is that society does not “attract” or “absorb” people, so to speak, but that society eliminates all spatial, social or ideological barriers to allow all members all options. Therefore, it’s not an exclusive-centralist approach (incoming) but an inclusive-petal (outgoing) that opens up to the already existing social structure. From a missiological point of view, the need is on a theological-petal approach that takes diversity of humans and diversity of church members as the basis for implementing the creative physical and ideological capabilities of the Kingdom of God on this earth. The motto of this inclusion vision is “unity in diversity”. At the global level, we must emphasize the creative side of God, who created people with physical and mental challenges of all kinds as well as photo models or athletes. Sexual orientation, gender or even race, geographical home and physical manifestation are due to the diversity of creation. In this regard, self- or foreign mutilation, changes by external factors such as environmental toxins, birth restrictions or gene defects are to be evaluated. In particular, since a direct intervention by the transcendence into the creation processes is the absolute exception. Creational theology based on the thermodynamic principles is here referred to a new order of creation (Mt 24-25 and Rev 21-22). Thus, although the power and energy emission performs an unpleasant picture of the future, it is not the genetic or physical or mental deficite of humans that must be hold responsible for that. Inclusion in this sense brings to fruition the diversity – the diversity – of creation and thus of potential church members. Newbigin summed this up for the Church in regard to people with physical and mental challenges in which he concluded: Without the handicapped, the Church is not complete (1979).

Inclusive Hermeneutics – Weakness, Unity, Strength

An inclusive hermeneutics of Disability Missiology should not succumb to paternalistic thinking. The Hermeneutic Approaches of Disability Theology are all lacking a transcultural perspective. For example

·  Newbigin (1979), proclaims a global Church with Disabled People (participation approach).

· Eiesland (1994), the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth describes the condescension of God in weakness by the image of humans with physical or mental challenges, in incarnation God hindered himself and thus became The disabled God (participation approach).

·  Bach (2006) emphasizes the church’s responsibility to address all strata of society and not to paternalistically fall for people with physical and mental challenges, but to be open to life encounters that include deviations from physical or aesthetic beliefs (solidarity approach).

·  Reynolds (2008), a hermeneutics of creation that reflects the likeness of all people and emphasizes the diversity of social life forms (solidarity and participation approach).

·  Creamer (2009), a theology of liminality in solidarity, while retaining the peculiarities of disabilities and people with physical and mental challenges (solidarity and participation approach).

·  Yong (2011), a hermeneutics of spiritual guidance by the Holy Spirit that indicates the diversity and the creative possibilities of the Church,

In Disability Missiology Conner (2018) has recently presented a draft that closes this gap. Nonetheless, all attempts to reduce divine omnipotence to weakness based on the symbol on the cross or in the incarnation of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth remain. Weakness is understood as the strength and inversion of secular values ​​and ideas. The suspicion remains, however, that “disability” and people with physical or mental limitations are reduced to their “weakness”. There is also a suspicion that pre-fabricated social templates are being adopted within the framework of the above-mentioned medical, social and cultural models, even by researchers who themselves have a limitation or are parents of children with a limitation. The dilemma is that these approaches address the perfection of non-disabled and design an anthropocentric image of God. Both principles are not reflecting the reality of human weakness by illness, physical or mental brokenness or the dangers of live (catastrophes, accidents). The anthropocentric interpretation leaves no room for a theology of surprise, which expects revelatory perceptions by the divine power.

Inclusivist Hermeneutics – God-Human Relationship

A proposal to bridge the divide between the lives of people with and without physical and mental challenges, while retaining the specific characteristics and needs in these environments, requires the intervention of those needing support to be included. In other words physically challenged people are seldom able to build ramps or elevation tools to guarantee participation in social activities. On the one hand, there are the construction issues and the design of the community life, so that as many different life forms as possible can participate. This includes sexual or gender diversity, which is also part of the life forms of people with physical and mental challenges. In the center of an inclusive hermeneutics are

  • the critical examination of the biblical-inherent discriminating ideas about people with physical and mental challenges,
  • the aesthetic ideals of physical perfection (e.g. happiness, beauty, life fulfillment) and
  • the salvation and healing realities of a messianic kingdom of God eschatology.

The creaturely conception of “disability” as a creation-as-desired by the Creator, related space of relationship is fundamental to such contemplation. Exegetical and hermeneutical aspects have to be weighed against each other and worked out with regard to a holistic perspective on “disability” in regard to human diversity represented in the global Church.


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