Today is my sister’s birthday. She was born 59 years ago. She died 20 years ago. I have missed her.
As I reflect on her life and contemporary discussions about disabilities, so many questions come to my mind. You see, she was blind – not from birth, but from about age seven on. She had a brain abscess that nearly killed her and ultimately took most of her sight from her. She was completely blind in her right eye and had less than 10% of normal vision in her left eye.
Today even the word “disability” has come under scrutiny. Some of this is for good reason. Often those who are disabled have been sidelined by society for any number of reasons. Society (including the church) has, in fact, made judgments about what disabled people can or cannot do. The same was true for my sister.
She earned her bachelor’s degree and then went on to the University of Michigan and earned her M.S.W. But when she would apply for jobs, she often was passed over because “you really can’t do this work with your handicap.” In other words, she wasn’t even given a chance. That really ticked her off.
Nonetheless, she would never have suggested that her blindness was not a handicap of sorts, any more than my chronic asthma is not a disability of sorts; only that it should not be the first or only thing she should be judged by. In her day, she fought for equal access for those with disabilities, be that access to “talking books,” or ramps and elevators for buildings, or whatever. She wanted disabled people like herself to have as many opportunities as were possible to live into their vocation as independently possible.
The language has changed. Today, a word like handicap or disability must be used with caution. In sociological and theological circles there are those who suggest that they will have their disability in the new heavens and earth. This is puzzling to me and I think it would be puzzling to my sister.
Not only does this sort of thinking raise serious questions about the healing miracles of Jesus, it also raises questions about texts like Is. 35:5-6, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened.” We read this text at Judy’s funeral because we knew that she longed to see. Especially color. She could see deep blue a little. And she loved that color. I expect that she would have found little comfort knowing that someday, in the new heavens and earth, she would still not be able to see things like birds, colors, and mountains, but that the societal barriers to being blind would no longer be in place, one of the more prevalent arguments for continued disability that affirms a healing of sorts. I think she thought that there was more to ultimate healing than that, given the way she talked about it.
And I think she was right.