Let's imagine, for a moment, that you are a pediatrician and you have made a commitment to holistic treatment of your patients--families and their children with one form of disability or another. Does that include religious beliefs and practices? But your background is Jewish, and, in our increasingly diverse society in the United States, your excellent reputation as a developmental pediatrician means that other families are coming to you, families who are Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist. What do you do when a family reveals something about the way their faith or religious tradition impacts their child or themselves in a way that seems harmful to you?
Or, you are a special educator or adult service provider, and you believe strongly in the value of community inclusion. So you make a commitment to include religious traditions and congregations as part of the pool of "generic community resources" or "natural supports" that are so important to the quality of life and services for people with disabilities and their families. But which traditions do you include? What is "normal" or "good" practice within different faiths? What may seem very "strange" to you may be very normal to someone else.
To compound it further, each one of those professionals and families lives in a time when disability and religion make the news in ways that tend to take individual experiences and generalize them to a whole faith tradition. For example, to read that insurgent forces in Iraq have used people with disabilities to be unwitting carriers of bombs into public places and then believe that is what all Muslims think about disability is just as wrong as assuming that the wonderful movie about Lior Liebling's acceptance and celebration of his gifts in prayer (www.prayingwithlior.com) means that all teenagers with disabilities receive the same kind of affirmation and inclusion within Jewish traditions. Would you assume that all Christians with disabilities are treated in the way exemplified by Jean Vanier and the L'Arche communities? That's just as bad as when others say that all people with one kind of disability or another think, feel, or act the same way.
Religious beliefs and traditions shape cultural and personal understandings of life issues, and, in turn, are shaped by new understanding in other arenas of life, such as medicine, science, and politics. Religious and faith traditions have sometimes enshrined prevailing attitudes about disability and differences but have also challenged them. People with disabilities and their families can tell you stories about how their religion and tradition has been helpful and supportive, but others can tell you stories of exclusion and shame at the hands of clergy and people of faith. The temptation, then, might be to say that we are better off by keeping hands off religion and its beliefs and practices about disability, but to do so also ignores a powerful and potential source for support in personal development, coping, and community supports.
Thus, the first step to wisdom in this wide intersection of religion and disability is to recognize that there is no one Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. approach to disability. How many of us in the West even know, for example, that there are five major schools or traditions within Islam and numerous denominations or traditions with Buddhism? And within each of these, just as within major Christian and Jewish denominations, there is not a single voice about disability. Rather, there are many different understandings that have arisen as people utilize their particular faith traditions to deal with the profound spiritual and theological issues raised by disability. For example: What does disability mean? What is the purpose? Why do people suffer? Are they suffering? What does God have to do with my disability or that of my son or daughter? How are they, or will they be, treated within my faith community? …