Disability Studies and Intercultural Theology


Disability Studies and Intercultural Theology

Eberhard Werner ( werner (a) forschungsinstitut.net )


Until today, little research has been conducted on Disability Studies in the context of Intercultural Theology. On the former, we note that some biographies do not explicitly address disability experiences. Examples are Luise A. Cooper for the Hildesheimer Blindenmission (HBM), Ernst Jakob, and Hedwig Christoffel for the Christian Mission in the Orient (German: Christliche Mission im Orient; founded 1908), today Christoffel Blindenmission (CBM; global in 1989). This article is looking at the history, motivation and discourses that emerge from these fields of Christian Development Aid activities. The interdisciplinary approach of intercultural theology determines the parameters to delineate the boundaries of the social sciences.

Disability Studies - Overview

Disability studies are composed of a multitude of individual disciplines. Disability History deals with historical contexts around people with physical or mental limitations (e.g. Nielsen 2013). Disability Worlds is concerned with the worlds of life and social relations as well as places of the encounter of people with and without physical or mental limitations (e.g. Whyte & Ingstad 1995). Disability and Gender describes the power movements and the influences on people with physical or mental limitations with regard to gender issues. The special disadvantage of women with disabilities is in focus in this field (e.g. Jacob, Köbsell & Wollrad 2010, Boll, Ewinkel et al., 1985). Disability Theology describes the exegetical and hermeneutical deficits with regard to people with physical or mental limitations in theology (e.g. Young 2011). Disability Missiology is a most recent formed discipline that focuses on the historic and recent perceptions and approaches regrading inclusion, exclusion or discrimination of people with physical or mental limitations. The focus is merely on the history of Christian Development Aid, postcolonial studies and modern approaches by and towards people with physical or mental limitations (e.g. Conner 2015 and 2018).

Because the lives of people with and without physical or mental limitations are in constant motion due to social, political and environmental changes, this list cannot be conclusive.

Disability Studies (DS) negotiate aesthetic and social discourses that move between the categories "normality" and "abnormality, deviation" (Schildmann 2009: 204-205). The definition of these social parameters is dependent on culture and environment. In European context, for example a visual impairment in the social area is less sanctioned than an aesthetic one, whereas in many Asian societies an aesthetic deviation finds fewer sanctions than a mobility impairment. This defines the terms "normality" and "deviation" and does that through social reactions such as discrimination, exclusion and rejection. The flow of power in the case of social reactions is towards the supposedly weaker, but can be different in intensity. Consequently, the understanding of "normality" and "abnormality" is in flux. Inclusion, as currently discussed, shifts the terminology by extending the standard notions of "norm" and "normality" towards including those with physical or mental limitations. Accessibility to buildings and the Internet will bring about the participation and presence of previously excluded people and thus did not have the chance to contribute to the social life and diversity of a society.

Transcultural and Transnational Aspects of Disability Studies

A look into the transcultural perception of disability and the disabled raises the question of universals. Disability performs a universal phenomenon and has been and still be socially sanctioned or stigmatized everywhere and at all times. In addition to the external physical sanctions, as expressed in structural obstacles or lack of resources, goes the internal social sanctioning, ranging from ignorance, ableism (brit. English disablism) to euthanasia. Historically, Plato (de polis) and Aristotle come to mind by their idea of the socially acceptable killing of newborns with physical or mental damage. Those were denied a "soul", in the sense of the non-mortal essence/being of man. In later social Darwinism, this notion was taken up again. The driving force of social utilitarism (the idea of ​​social usefulness), for both the individual himself as well as for the collective – the society – was introduced. To prevent society from destruction, according to the conclusion of Plato, it must discard his "useless" participants including all that are not consistently functional. In Brave New World (1932, Aldous Huxley) this utopia is written down. At the end of the 20th century, bioethicist Peter Singer puts it briefly when he calls for abortion, early diagnosis and the pre-selection of human characteristics as a necessary, responsible form of social planning, indeed as a natural social development. Thus, in his opinion, the future generations are protected from unnecessary costs caused by "useless" members. Societies, he argues, are only geared at their needs. In addition and contrast to this utilitarian approach, a broader inclusive movement has emerged that seeks to integrate and empower people with physical or mental disabilities.

It is tragically evident that the physical and mental damage resulting from war traumas (WWI and WWII) brought with it the need for rehabilitation and, thus, (re-)integration. At the same time, these guidelines limited the treatment of people with physical or mental disabilities to the restoration of lost abilities. This "medical" or "rehabilitation-oriented" model of disability is deeply seated globally. The "normal Able-bodied" becomes the standard and leaves the persons concerned with a "derivation" to only re-access to the life worlds of the "normal". The by-going stigmatization as "others" was the basis of all thinking and the acting on people with physical or mental limitations. In this approach, we find no formation of one's own world of life, ones ways of life or any interfaces to other worlds of life as performed by persons with a physical or mental challenge. Such a crossing of boundaries is neither considered, nor encouraged nor desired. The driving force or "rehabilitation" is health care, which, in direct collaboration with the world of work, reduces participation in the community in terms of employability, preparation and the introduction into it. Niches such as arts, the humanities or creative forms of life are reserved for only a few persons challenged by impairment they are seldom financially attractive nor prestigious.

The community is in need to overcome social sanctions consciously and specifically. The political fight against Ableism (UK: disablism; disability hostility) is a laborious and persistent urge for inclusion and shifting the perception of "normality" towards the inclusion of people with physical and mental limitations (following the fight of antisemitism). Some physical limitations are given in a society, when it comes to public security and service. Thus, certain safety-related professions (e.g. police service, fire service readiness, emergency services, military) remained and remain closed to people with physical and mental limitations as far as they would not meet the required physical performance. Only a subsequent disability allows participation in these occupational groups, such as e.g. office work at such institutions. Physical fitness plays an important role here. However, as these occupations require exceptional performance, as evidenced by their attitudes (e.g., athletic and mental abilities), they do not represent the social "norm" nor the main body of work conditions that would allow a person with physical or mental challenges to participate.

In the encounter with foreign or other cultures, the social position of a cultural broker is not of minor importance. In the colonial era, the Western Development Aid worker actor was the initiator and the financially controlling focal point for the processes of intercultural encounter (Said 2009: 25.26). In religious terms, they were considered as Christian development aid workers, as this was the dominant religion of Catholic, Protestant or Free Church background. The combination of economic, political, military and church goals was in flux and used consciously or unconsciously by them for their own interests. Due to militarily supported financial superiority, the locals or local authorities could be controlled.

This is made obvious by the example of Ernst Jakob and Hedwig Christoffel. Following countless other church development workers in these days (e.g. Ernst Lohmann, *1860­–†1936 or Johannes Lepsius, *1858–†1926) they based their work to serve specifically people with visual limitations (Thüne 2007: 31, 66). They started out to East Anatolia, first from 1904-1906 in Sivas, later from 1908-1915 both to Malatya by an own run care home for visual and physical impaired orphans. Lately since 1916-1922 Ernst Jakob Christoffel worked without Hedwig, due to her marriage with Hans Bauernfeind, in Malatya. By 1922 moving the focus because of political unrests from Malatya to Tabriz and Isfahan. Although in 1907 they were destitute, they began to proclaim in prayer and the presentation of their idea of ​​an orphanage for visually impaired girls in Eastern Anatolia. Their three-year experience of orphanage work in this politically, geographically as well as pedagogically challenging area was basic to their vision. Since several Christian development aid organizations had focused on this type of diaconal work (German: Diakonie), the combination of pedagogy and nursing was basically nothing new, but the focus by Christoffels was specifically on people with visual impairments. It is worth mentioning the work of the ABCFM (American Board of Christian Foreign Mission), the BFBS (British and Foreign Bible Society), the German Orient Mission (Dr. Lepsius, DOM later in 1916 LDOM), and the German Hülfsbund for Christian Love Works in the Orient (Ernst Lohmann) as pointed out by Baumann (2007).



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