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  • Reimaging Disability
  • Darla Y. Schumm (bio)

Feminist disability theology reimagines disability through both feminist and theological prisms. I can think of few scholars who have done the hard work of this theological reimagining better than Nancy Eiesland. As Sharon Betcher notes in her lead-in article for this roundtable discussion, Eiesland's reimagining of God as a disabled God "has proven to be one of the most profound gifts Eiesland offered the Christian community" (116).Through her creative and symbolic reimagining, Eiesland invited laypeople, persons with disabilities, theologians, ethicists, biblical studies scholars, and religious studies scholars alike to join her in reimagining the multiple forms of human variation, God, and humanity's relationship with God from the locus of inclusion and justice.

Like Eiesland, Betcher invites us to participate in feminist and theological reimaginings of disability. In her compelling argument, she pushes for a feminist disability theology that finds its grounding in the nitty-gritty of flesh, rather than the socially constructed body so prevalent in mainstream feminist and theological discourses. While Betcher's argument contains many important and thought-provoking layers, I offer an alternative to a component of her proposal, which reflects my own feminist-driven reimagining of disability.

Betcher asserts, "Flesh suggests that the capaciousness of a life resembles a teacup crackled with ten thousand veins. Spirit, lived in relation to flesh, might then not be so interested in wholeness as in passion" (108). I suggest that if we take seriously Betcher's urging—and Eiesland's before her—to think "from the ecotone of philosophical difference between body and flesh" (108), then the interest of spirit as lived in relation to flesh is not a contrast between wholeness and passion, but rather more appropriately identified as a contrast between wholeness and compassion. Adding the prefix "com" serves to pinpoint and reveal the ethical implications of Betcher's shift from body to flesh and yields a feminist disability ethics of compassion.

A few words explain my interest in articulating a feminist disability ethics of compassion as it relates to disability theology, my work in feminist disability studies, and my participation in this roundtable discussion. I am trained formally as an ethicist yet find myself teaching and overseeing a major in world religions at a small liberal arts women's college. I have a genetic disorder called Leber's congenital amaurosis, a retinal disorder rendering me severely visually impaired. My commitment to feminism and my interest in religious studies [End Page 132] generally and ethics in particular were sparked in my early college years, but not until I ran across the work of Nancy Eiesland as a graduate student (the first disability theologian I encountered) did I think about incorporating the lived reality of my disability into my academic pursuits. Since completing my PhD, I have devoted myself to thinking about the intersections between world religions and disability. Thus I am honored and delighted to pay tribute to one of the thinkers who set me on my current path and to offer some thoughts about how a feminist disability ethics of compassion might fit well with a feminist disability theology grounded in flesh.

A feminist disability ethics of compassion adheres most closely to the social model of disability, which views disability as just one form of human variation, in contrast to a medical model of disability, which focuses on impairment and the need for cure.1 I draw on insights from Buddhism and articulations of a feminist ethics of care to develop my understanding of a feminist disability ethics of compassion. I maintain that Buddhist understandings of interdependence and impermanence foster an ethics of compassion rooted in feminist notions of an ethics of care and promote inclusion and justice for all: disabled and temporarily abled persons alike.

The Buddhist understanding of compassion offers helpful insights into developing a feminist disability ethics of compassion. I do not have the space here to articulate fully the Buddhist understanding of compassion, but two key concepts provide the basic framework for a feminist disability ethics of compassion: impermanence and interdependence. Buddhism teaches us that we live in an impermanent and interdependent world. All objects and people are dependent for their origination...


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