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Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas, speaking in Doerr Chapel at Fontbonne University. (Photo credit: my iPhone)

Last night, Stanley Hauerwas spoke at Fontbonne University, as part of its Carondelet Lecture Series. His lecture was entitled "Disability: An Attempt to Think With."

As usual, the person who in 2001 Time magazine named "America's Best Theologian" (a label that has dogged him ever since) did not disappoint. As the italics suggest, the conjunction is the most important word in his title. What does it mean to be with those who are "disabled," whatever we mean by that label? How is being with different from working for? How would our thinking and actions change if we saw ourselves with the disabled in mutual relationship rather then for them in what might be a condescending advocacy?

All this assumes, of course, that "abled" persons have not really figured out how to relate to dis-"abled" persons. The disabled remain a vulnerable "other" in society, labeled as such by social structures that often would rather explain away experiences of suffering as pointless anamolies than enter into encounters and relationships that would bear up one another's burdens.

Hauerwas talked briefly about the social constructions that surround our conceptions of disability before he moved on to the heart of his lecture. At its heart, Hauerwas lifted up the reality that more often than not individuals express and make sense of their experiences of suffering, particularly the suffering of disability, through story. Rather than attempting to abstractly explain the experience, we narrate it. By narrating these experiences, the stories allow for deep experiences of empathy. The narratives open themselves up in powerful ways to various personal understandings of the suffering experienced.

But that gets me thinking again about the social construction of disability. Not only is our conception of disability itself socially constructed, but so are the conditions by which disability "happens" in our daily living. Often disability "happens" because of the ways society has already structured itself for interaction and activity.

What do I mean by this? Let me give you a mundane example. If I can walk, I would not be labeled "lame." But if I had painfully arthritic knees and I encountered a steep set of stairs, the situation would manifest a "disability" that I would not otherwise have. My disability would "happen" in such a way that in this particular situation, I would have to seek alternative ways to counteract my newfound and momentary disability, i.e. find an elevator. For this given moment in time, I would be "disabled."

Yet, our social conception of disability views it more often than not as a clinical state of being, something that does not change from situation to situation. This is in stark contrast to other forms of suffering, which we often view as events in our existence, momentary points in time where we experience pain, dis-ease, or distress.

Which leads me to the question: What would it look like to view disability as an event, as something that "happens" as part of daily life, instead of a person's permanent state of being?

I'm not sure I am completely capable to answer that question on my own. But it would surely make our conception of disability more elastic and fluid. We would be able to take a more nuanced view toward our interaction with disability. We would be able to view persons in disabled or disabling situations rather than as necessarily disabled themselves.

Now, would there still be people whose conditions categorized them into a near-perpetual state of disability? Probably so. But it would be more than helpful to be able to locate such disability within broader structures and situations that tend to manifest the disability, as opposed to simply labeling them "disabled" and calling it a day.

But more importantly, if we would view disability as an event rather than a state of being, I believe it would envelope us even more fully within broader stories and narratives as the ways to express and interpret our experiences with disability. And, telling the story, we might be able to see the vulnerabilities—the moments of dis-ability—that are an inevitable experience of life as finite people in a broken world.