Author’s Disclaimer: Throughout this article, I have opted to use person-first and disability-first language interchangeably when referring to people with disabilities. Disabled people have thoughtful and varied reasons for preferring one form of language over the other. It is always best practice to ask individuals what language they prefer when talking about disability.
July is Disability Pride Month.
Beyond celebrating the members of the world’s largest minority, Disability Pride Month commemorates the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law on July 26, 1990.
A disabled person myself, I often grapple with the concept of disability pride. The chronic illness that increasingly limits my function has created a contentious relationship between me and my newly disabled body, making pride hard to fathom in lower moments. To admit this feels hypocritical, yet honest.
When I struggle to find pride in my disabled identity, I turn to the voices of the prophets and poets within the disability community, gleaning from their collective wisdom.
I contemplate the bravery of people like activist and author Jennifer Keelan, who at eight years old led an unforgettable protest in the spring of 1990. Known as the “Capitol Crawl,” it would serve as the catalyst for the passage of the groundbreaking civil rights legislation that would prohibit discrimination against disabled people in public spaces.
Jennifer and the 60-something people who abandoned their wheelchairs and discarded their mobility aids to crawl up the stairs leading to the United States Capitol on March 13, 1990, understood disability pride.
By using their bodies to tangibly demonstrate the effects of discrimination against people with disabilities, these activists courageously declared, “I am here. I am visible. I matter — and that is something of which I am proud.”
We can learn from their wisdom.
Disability — whether caused by accident, age, illness or present in birth — is a fact of life. In this way, it is similar to the categories of race and gender.
Whether we consider these markers to be innate or socially constructed, they are not all-defining; yet they provide markers of self in which people find identity.
Underlying much of the conversation surrounding disability pride is the ongoing philosophical debate about how we are to think about our bodies.
Should we celebrate our bodies, and adopt the framework of body positivity? Is it best to harbor neutral feelings toward our bodies? Are bodies merely tools, instruments? Are we our bodies, or our minds, or both?
Traumatic experiences have a significant and ongoing impact on the human body, as Bessel A. van der Kolk notes in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. One common result of traumatic experience is the feeling of dissociation, or disconnect, from one’s body.
As another author elaborates, “Among individuals who suffer from the aftermath of trauma, the mind/body connection is often severed, leading to the subjective experience of feeling partially or fully detached from one’s body, or alternatively, as if one’s body does not belong to oneself.”
Advocating for total severance between the mind and the body, the fruit of trauma, is not a sufficient way to conceptualize the mind-body relationship. Nor is viewing people exclusively as their bodies a satisfactory response.
As any person or group that has borne the injustice of being dehumanized knows, being seen as a thing, rather than a person, is equally harmful.
One more consideration adds further nuance to this discussion: the embodied Christ, who put on human flesh in order to encounter humankind.
The Son of God’s literal body was conceived, grew and changed. Christ’s very body was tormented and broken on our behalf. Christ’s physical body, along with his spirit, rose from the dead, and, as many observant authors have pointed out, resurrected with the scars accumulated from his life and death still present.
As the church, we celebrate the weight of these truths by partaking in communion, the sacred meal representative of Christ’s body and blood. Perhaps we should see disability pride as an extension of communion.
By celebrating disability pride, we partake in the sacred celebration of the body of Christ here on earth: his church. By acknowledging and celebrating real differences and needs of people within Christ’s church, we can authentically welcome all to the sacred feast.