What the gospel says about power and how people with disabilities and able-bodied people can work together

Written by Nathaniel Tooke

Earlier this year I learned about Inclusion Saskatchewan (INSK) right here in my home province. INSK works with people with intellectual disabilities to share their stories, challenge barriers, train new leaders, and create awareness about disability issues. INSK trains people with disabilities on how to self-advocate and become leaders in their communities. Who better to advocate for people with intellectual disabilities?

As a student support worker and disability coordinator at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Sask., I work alongside people with disabilities[1]. Self-advocacy efforts inspire me to want to hear, try to understand, and in some way further the cause of inclusion and equity. Yet, every attempt I make ends with me feeling either like an imposter or worse, somehow thinking I am filling some gap that people with disabilities cannot fill on their own.

Being a storyteller at heart, I often think and teach using imagery. But something feels wrong about every image I try to use to explain this. I could describe myself as a bridge builder, using my power, such as normative privilege, to create a way forward where one wasn’t before. Yet a bridge suggests that without me, the person I’m hoping to help would be stuck and unable to navigate the barrier I’m supposed to be bridging.

I could say that I’m standing atop the cliff and reaching a hand down to pull up others behind me. The cliff in that image seems to be made of ego and the air filled with superiority. If I say I’m lifting others on the shoulders of my power and influence, I either sound like a self-sacrificing hero or belittle myself in a disingenuous attempt at “levelling the playing field.” At best, my attempts are insufficient and just rearrange the situation into some other imbalanced arrangement of power.

In discussing intercultural communication during a leadership course, Jay Mowchenko, a professor of leadership studies at Briercrest and mentor of mine, taught that we must be prepared to look foolish if we are to learn, especially about one another. We need to put our ignorance and feeble efforts at understanding in full view, ready to be corrected so we can grow together.

Eric Law shares a model of power, a cycle of gospel living that I’ll join to Jay’s notion of foolish growth as a starting point for empowerment.

Varying levels of power can be seen in images from the life of Christ. The saving power of Christ is seen in his resurrection, while his death is an image of him at his lowest: beaten, bloodied, and made a criminal. Imagine each of us experiencing circumstances that reflect Christ, and that those circumstances form a loop or cycle.

People with some kind of power, such as being financially well-off or being perceived as able-bodied, live in the empty-tomb part of this picture. The powerless find themselves mirroring vulnerability like Christ’s cross.

If the empty tomb and cross are the top and bottom of this circle, on either side of it we can find the next steps as proposed by the gospel: those with power give it up and move toward the cross (the image for us to consider is of self-emptying, not of salvific action) while those without power are to be empowered and should exhibit endurance as they move toward the empty tomb.

For those with power, this cycle means stepping out of the way and making room for others—empowering them without suppressing their voices. For those without power, this cycle means sharing their stories and employing self-advocacy. Neither the powerful nor the powerless are placed on a pedestal; they also aren’t self-victimizing.

Empowerment and support are actions done in and by a community.

This cycle doesn’t offer a full solution to this dilemma. However, it suggests a way forward. A place to start. If we hope to support each other we must do so in humility, recognizing that we are flawed and will do this imperfectly. We must come ready to fail, own our failure, and be corrected. Empowerment and support are actions done in and by a community.

We listen so we can understand, empathize, give space for stories, and receive direction on how to join the cause from those whose cause it is. When those leading a cause can offer direction to those joining it, they support and empower themselves, while those partnering with them are blessed and learn from them.

People with disabilities often face great challenges navigating daily life due to social pressures, masking (hiding aspects of ourselves to fit within accepted norms) and other factors. If we want to love our neighbours as Christ does, then we will need to humbly learn and understand these challenges from each other’s perspectives.

We need humility and grace in the face of each other’s failings. We shouldn’t gloss over these failures without experiencing the grievances they are. Anger, frustration, a cry for justice, and sadness are all to be expected. It is an important part of reaching forgiveness to experience and process these responses. But we must also have grace and forgiveness so we can grow together and learn how to do better next time.

So, how can we—as temporarily able-bodied people and people with disabilities—work together to ensure those with disabilities can participate in life and learning in our communities as much as possible? There’s no perfect answer. However, it is going to be a process of deep, sometimes messy co-journeying through the stories and contexts of others.

Through humble listening and learning, relationships and empathy can emerge in intimate, surprising, and revelatory ways.

We need to add books by people with disabilities to our proverbial shelves. We don’t have to look hard to find them. We each belong to communities with varying physical and mental vulnerabilities. Through humble listening and learning, relationships and empathy can emerge in intimate, surprising, and revelatory ways.

We can each learn to step back, or only step in when others invite us to offer our perspective. We can look around us, and notice who is present and who is absent, question why, and see where those who are missing can be brought in. If necessary, we can make our humble attempts to point to the stories and contexts of those whose voices are absent, inviting others into the same first-hand seeking and learning process.

This is the right use of power that the cycle of gospel living invites us to. The right use of power is in building up those who lack it and creating spaces for their voices to be empowered. This is why the work of groups like INSK is so necessary and powerful.

I’ll start by pointing to the stories that inspired me to write this article. In On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodivergence Daniel Bowman Jr. shares his story of autistic life, inviting neurotypicals to take a closer look and grow in understanding his unique experience.

Hopefully, his readers will grow in awareness of what other people with autism might experience and how they navigate daily life (being mindful that “if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person”). He takes the first step in the gospel living cycle, growing in power by sharing his story, which invites people who are neurotypical to step back and learn from him and encourages other people with disabilities to share their stories too.

Nathaniel Tooke is a disability advocate, a writer, and a disability support worker as the Academic Resource Centre Coordinator at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Sask. 

[1] Here, disabilities refer to basically any medical condition, including physical, mental/learning, and mental health conditions, that impedes learning. This is based on the medical view and definition. A key aspect of the medical view is that disability is established as a clinical deviation from prescribed norms, such as neurotypicality, bipedal mobility, and full-sightedness. Though the view is simplistic, it does cover a wide span of experiences sufficiently to capture the broad strokes of this article.
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