(This is an extract from a 2018 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast, where Simon Smart and Natasha Moore interview theologian Shane Clifton, who became a quadriplegic after a freak accident. Listen to the full episode here.)
SIMON SMART: You’re listening to Life and Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. Now you’ve probably seen those posters: they generally show someone with a disability achieving some sort of goal, looking super impressive. And they usually sport a caption, something like: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “What’s your excuse?” Now these are meant to be inspirational posters, for people living with a disability, it doesn’t always come across that way. There’s a term for this, actually – Disability Rights Activist Stella Young was the first to call it ‘inspiration porn’. Shane Clifton explains.
SHANE CLIFTON: There’s a technical difference between what they call the medical and the social model of disability, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that before. But we tend to think of disability as a problem in the body. And it’s a problem with the individual who’s got the disability, and the solution to that is to fix the body in one way or another or the brain. Whereas disabled advocates have realised that actually, disability is a social problem and that people are disabled because we don’t shape our environment to accommodate people’s embodied differences. And that might be simple things like ramps to get into buildings, sign interpreters in our meetings, or various other things. So I think society and the media tends to present disability as a problem with the person. And then that also comes out in the way in which they talk about disabled people overcoming their problems. So there’s this thing which I call the positivity myth which has this idea that if you’ve got a positive attitude, you can overcome the constraints of your disability.
SIMON SMART: It’s not disconnected from that thing that people tell children – schools, all the time – that “you can be anything you want to be”, which isn’t true. I’ve found this out. It’s sort of connected, isn’t it?
SHANE CLIFTON: Yeah, the winner of The Voice every year will go, “I dreamed a dream. And if you dream it, look what will happen to you.” Well, the fact is we’ve just watched 99 people get knocked out of the competition – it didn’t work for them. And look, you can’t overcome the constraints of disability, especially if it’s society working against you. So I get really tired of the positivity myth, which is whenever you see a disabled person, the one who is presented is the person who’s overcome. You know, the stories in the media will be the person who got a spinal cord injury who managed to walk at the end of it. And you know what, that’s not generally the consequences of positive attitude – he was just fortunate or she was just fortunate that the spinal cord healed up.
NATASHA MOORE: So if you could choose how disability was represented, or influence it a bit more, what kind of stories would you want to see told?
SHANE CLIFTON: Real life stories of successes and failures and virtues and vices. I think what people with disabilities want to be represented as is not normal – because who wants to be normal? – but you know, the same as everybody else. We’re a community of normal, funny people who have got, really, many of the same challenges. So when you see a disabled person doing something, don’t say “Isn’t that great because they’re disabled?” for example, say “Aren’t they doing a fantastic thing?” So praise them for their accomplishment. As soon as you say, “Oh, that’s amazing because they’re disabled”, you’re actually diminishing what it is they’re doing, you’re seeing the disability, not the thing that the person is doing. So my point would be: just do your best to treat people as people.
Disability is throughout the Bible. You don’t really notice it, probably, until you maybe really go looking for it.
SIMON SMART: Shane, you’re not only a Christian, you’re a Christian theologian. Are you thinking deeply about these questions of faith and how they apply to real life? Are there ways in which the Christian story itself shapes how you think about disability?
SHANE CLIFTON: I think the Christian gospel is significant for people with disabilities because it does recognise the fact that suffering is an inherent part of the story of the gospel. And so, for me, it’s been lovely to be able to see myself as part of that story.
Disability is throughout the Bible. You don’t really notice it, probably, until you maybe really go looking for it. It’s interesting, even, to sort of think of Jesus as somehow disabled on the cross. So when you see artworks of the sort of disabled body of Christ, I think those things become very powerful for speaking or for inviting people like myself and others into the gospel story.
And obviously the great thing about the gospel story, unlike ancient Greek society – like in Rome, the high point of Rome, was the virtuous man who’s essentially a strong warrior – and yet in the gospel story it’s oriented all to the broken, to the vulnerable. So it really does reorient our priorities, and reorient the sort of people who are important.