- Embodying DialogueTeaching Disability and Ability in a Time of Crisis
My name is Michael Walker. I call myself Mike. I work at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago as a Theology Teaching Fellow, where I teach both undergraduates in the Bible department and graduate classes in theology. I'm a person with spastic cerebral palsy. That experience grounds my pedagogy. I use my body as part of my classroom strategy to promote what Paulo Freire called "problem-posing education."1
Spastic cerebral palsy means three things. First, spastic: my muscles are always tense; I need to be tired or drunk in order for my muscles to fully relax. Second, cerebral means that the part of my brain damaged at my birth was the cerebrum, which regulates motor function. Third, palsy indicates that I experience tremors. My limbs shake whenever I move, even my left arm, my dominant limb. These experiences create other struggles, including physical imbalance, spatial disorientation, chronic pain, and some marked gaps in logic and nuance.
My limitations allow me to center my body as part of the opening lecture in each course. I tell my students the same thing I have just revealed about my body—often using very similar words—in order to disclose my orientation to the lecture topic. Thus, my revelation of my disabilities can frame classes on liberation in the Bible, ecclesiologies of disability, ethics, pastoral care, and health care. By exposing myself existentially in the classroom—by showing my students who I truly am—I aim to show them how I have transformed parts of my situation and hope to offer them tools to analyze their own contexts.
Disclosing my disability does not simply allow me to reinterpret Freire. It also empowers me to address ableism—the systemic and personal discrimination against, and oppression of, people with disabilities by people of able body. [End Page 167] Moreover, it allows me to "infuse the graduate theological curriculum with the experience of disability," to quote theologian of disability Robert Anderson.2 Accessibility—the entry point to God's dignity and joy—concerns more than just a syllabus statement. It is a way of being in the world. Since I constantly use the Jewish and Christian scriptures in my work, my probing of my medical conditions enables me to point to other places in the biblical witness where divine and human entities affirm and support vulnerability in the same ways I do. In other words, my reinterpretation of my body allows me to show my students the divine mandate for the revolution for which Freire yearned.
Additionally, my self-disclosure allows me to offer my students a strategy they can use to critically engage the knowledge we are generating. By interpreting my physical, social, and spiritual experiences, I probe the extent of the "limit-situation": I am reinterpreting the given part of a social discourse, by taking back to medical institutions that see me as malleable and in need of cure.3 By speaking about my pronounced gait, and other disabilities, I engage in what Freire called "limit-acts," the actions whereby I nullify and obviate the barriers that separate me from true freedom.4
When I use my vulnerability to create the space for questioning in this way, I am creating the conditions for "dialogue"—or, as Freire put it, "the encounter between [humans], mediated by the world, in order to name the world."5 I assert my body, and also name the ways in which the world forbids people with disabilities to speak. Then I ask my students tacitly to respond to my experience, and to name and embody their own true selves.
In some classes, I define liberation as self-expression, creativity, and action without outside constraint. That definition of liberation correlates strongly to the positive categories Freire outlined in his fourth chapter. Once people have been freed by a new understanding of a limit-situation, they can engage in what Freire called "cooperation," naming the world together "in order to transform it."6 Moreover, when students are behaving as equals and attempting to understand and transcend their limit-situations, they will organize, coming together to...