Thinking Theologically About Disability

Published on 30th Jan, 2019

Disability theology explores the juncture between the experience of people living with a disability and sources of theological insight. It is a way of breaking down barriers; looking at things differently; and reclaiming a mantra of ‘us’ rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’.

This article presents a number of guiding theological principles for the genuine and authentic consideration of disability within the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

It seems obvious that disability, in all its expressions, is an ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ pursuit – one that doesn’t need any ‘special treatment’ or be considered ‘taboo’. On the other hand, too often we hear stories of people living with a disability being excluded, pushed away and rejected from our communities.

On the positive side, Erik W Carter believes: ‘The potential for congregations to communicate grace, extend relationships, and share in the lives of people with a disability and their families in their community is enormous, but these rich and deep reservoirs of support remain largely untapped.’2

Theologically, there is no reason why a person living with a disability should be excluded, considered ‘non-human’ or a punishment from God. As John Swinton stresses: ‘Disability in all of its forms is simply another way of being human’3 or ‘a way of naming difference.’4

Let’s now turn our attention to a number of theological principles that are relevant to the exploration of disability.

The doctrine of the imago Dei (Image of God) is the starting point for any reflection on the nature of the human person. The imago Dei is introduced in the book of Genesis, where we are told that all human beings are ‘created in the image and likeness of God’ (1:26-27). It is crucial to the theological premise being mounted in this article that every human being, regardless of physical and/or cognitive ability (as well as other characteristics such as race, gender, skin colour, language used, and so on) is reverenced with equal dignity and respect – without exception.5

The theology of belonging is rooted in Catholic social teaching. Swinton (with Jean Vanier) stresses the importance of moving beyond mere inclusion, to creating communities of belonging: ‘for a person to be present, they need to be missed,’6 or ‘To belong you need to be missed. To belong, others need to long for you like the Prodigal Son’s father as he anxiously surveys the horizon, searching eagerly for signs of his son.’7

The notion of creating communities of belonging is central to promoting the theology of disability. In order to achieve the full participation of people living with a disability, ‘a shift of mindset needs to occur from service for people living with a disability to service with people living with a disability.’8 An essential ecclesiological function of the Church is to create and foster a sense of community.

In conclusion, all human persons share a common humanity through the Incarnation of Jesus the Christ. The final words will go to Vanier: ‘People with disabilities have taught me so much over these past 42 years as we have lived and shared together in L’Arche as friends and companions, as brothers and sisters, as people brought together by God. In fact, they have not only taught me; they have transformed me and brought me into a new and deeper vision of humanity. They are helping discover who I am, what my deepest needs are, and what it means to be human.’9

Published in WelCom February 2019
1 Zachariah (Zach) Duke is Acting Academic Dean, Acting Head of Learning and Teaching and Lecturer in Theology at The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as a Research Fellow with The Nathaniel Centre – the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre. Zach’s main areas of academic competence include: disability theology; practical-pastoral theology; ecclesiology and ethnography; and theological education.
2 Erik W. Carter, ed., Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 2007), 65.
3 John Swinton, “Interview with John Swinton,” 2013, accessed 15 January 2019,
4 John Swinton, “Time, Hospitality and Belonging: A Practical Theology of Disability” (public lecture, The Broken Bay Institute, Pennant Hills, June 24, 2014).
5 This is echoed in the opening lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (See United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, accessed 18 January 2019,
6 Swinton, “Interview.” [Jean Vanier, CC, GOQ, b 1928, is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. In 1964 he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.]
7 Jean Vanier and John Swinton, Mental Health: The Inclusive Church Resource (Norwich: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2014), 11.
8 Cristina Gangemi, ‘A Place to Belong: Stewards in a Human Story’ (available from [email protected]).
9 Jean Vanier, ‘What Have People with Learning Disabilities Taught Me?’ in The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and the Sciences, ed. Hans S. Reinders (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 19.
* [Jean Vanier, CC, GOQ, b 1928, is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. In 1964 he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.]

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