While reading Amy Kenny’s My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church, you will laugh, you will cringe, and you may cry. But you will definitely be challenged to take a long look in the mirror to see where your assumptions about disability may be hiding.
First, let’s define ableism. In her book, Kenny quotes Talila A. Lewis’ definition of ableism: “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity.”
Reread that definition.
Pause for a moment.
Then ask yourself if the church—or even your church—is ableist.
Amy Kenny is a disabled scholar and Shakespeare lecturer. To the general population, her disability means she must use a scooter. But in one of many perspective-altering turns of phrase for those who suffer from ableism, Kenny writes, “It is not my inability to walk or stand that disables me. Rather, I am disabled by the fact that buildings are structured with stairs, narrow hallways, and curbs, making them difficult for me to access on wheels.”
Kenny doesn’t stop there, though.
As a Christian, she calls the church to repent for our sins of omission and commission when it comes to how we’ve treated the disabled in our churches and communities. She writes that “the most harmful ableism I have experienced has been inside the church.”
And she asserts that “we should consider how to embrace disability as a mark of greater understanding about God. Disability acts as a method for revealing the living God to the community, not something that always needs to be prayed away to showcase God’s power.”
We interviewed Kenny via email and discussed the church’s ableism, how to talk about ableism, the difference between curing and healing, and what surprised her while writing this book.
Discussing My Body Is Not a Prayer Request with Amy Kenny
In My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, you offer a sincere, direct, funny, and sometimes devastating critique of how disabled people have been treated as less than fully human. You state that “the most harmful ableism I have experienced has been inside the church,” and in your opening chapter you list the many reasons why that is from your personal experience. Knowing that you go into detail in your book about this question, what are the first steps toward revealing and then reversing the church’s ableism?
The first step is admitting there’s a problem. Many faithful churchgoers have been unaware of the ableism in church spaces because many disabled people are ignored or forgotten (which of course is ableism). In my experience, most people mean well, but just haven’t given disability much thought, so the first step is acknowledging the harm and following the lead of disabled folks who can help the church repair what has been damaged.
A similar question on a more one-to-one basis: How do you discuss ableism with someone who doesn’t think they’re an ableist?
One of the tricks of ableism is to make itself invisible. Like other idols, we barely even notice it’s there because we think it’s normal to worship nondisabled bodies and minds. Instead of trying to convince people of this invisible force, I try to focus on the behavior, word, or idea that is ableist. Take “lame” for example. When someone uses the word “lame,” they are (often unintentionally) using my lame body as a marker of something undesirable or cheesy. It’s no fun being everyone’s go-to word to describe something gross. Would not recommend. 0/5 stars. But it’s not simply about stopping the word itself; it’s about examining the idea behind the word that suggests that some bodies are better than others. It’s about making sure that our language and behavior reflects what we say we believe: that every body—disabled and nondisabled alike—is made in the image of the Creator.
We’re featuring an excerpt from My Body Is Not a Prayer Request from the chapter titled “Disabled God” that argues for a perspective shift on how Christians view disabled people, both here and in the hereafter. In some ways, it hearkens back to an earlier chapter that discusses the difference between curing and healing. Why is it important for nondisabled people to understand the difference?
We live in a world that wants there to be a quick fix for everything. Here’s a problem, fix it, medicine! That’s curing. We would rather a magician than a messiah. But Jesus isn’t a magician, churning out miracles upon demand and pulling sparkly bunnies out of hats. Jesus heals people, which is so much richer and more expansive than curing, but it often takes time. Healing is deep, messy, hard work. If we limit our imaginations to curing, we miss out on the rich work of healing that Jesus does in and through our lives. Disabled people know this truth well: that our bodies and our minds do not determine our worth. We have been healed of the lies of ableism that tries to rank us in a hierarchy of humanity. Nondisabled people can learn a great deal from us about how healing functions in our lives and what it means to be human.
Lastly, what surprised you most during the writing process for this book?
That people wanted to read it! I was part of a writing group (Freedom Road Global Writers’ Group) while writing the book and everyone was so encouraging of me and my words. I was surprised by the way nondisabled people found themselves in my story and understood some of the pain and ache of exclusion in different ways. Their celebration of my work led me on a path of sharing my story with the world. I have so long wanted people to listen to disabled people in churches, and have regularly been silenced, dismissed, or mocked for speaking out against ableism. Most of all, I was surprised that anyone was willing to listen.
In one of the more powerful lines of the first chapter, Kenny reiterates the necessity of such listening. She shines truth on the connection that all able-bodied and disabled-bodied people share: “By either age or accident, most people will experience some form of disability in their lives. . . .We, the disabled, bear prophetic witness about what is true about the fragile human condition. If only the church would listen to us.”
Church, let us listen and let us change.