FIRST PERSON: We plan to occasionally publish blog posts that highlight the lived experience of people with disabilities. We’re proud to kick off the First Person blog feature with this piece by our own staff advocate Abigail Craig. If you have a story to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m running late for philosophy class, per usual, doing my best to rush across the faux-cobblestone sidewalks when I am tapped on the shoulder. It’s two people I vaguely recognize from campus. I pause out of politeness. They ask me: “Can I pray for you?”
I’m confused at first, and then I remember. My gait is minimally affected by Cerebral Palsy. From the outside, it appears as though I’m limping.
I’m confused, my emotions unprocessed. “I’m late for class,” I murmur, trying to exit the situation. They persist: “We will walk with you.”
And so I let them pray for me. They lay their hands on my shoulders and ask for “God’s healing love” to come upon me and “heal” me from my “affliction.” It was awkward. It was embarrassing. But as I reflected on the experience, I realized that more than anything else, it was hurtful. It wasn’t that I am not a person of faith myself – I am. It wasn’t that I don’t personally believe in God or the power of prayer. It was that in their zeal, they were telling me that I’m not okay. That I’m broken. That I need to be fixed. And this is far from the truth.
To be fair, the actions of the well-meaning believers are not without precedent. The Gospels are filled with narratives of Jesus performing healing miracles. In this respect, I believe context matters. In AD 27-29, disability was often tantamount to a death sentence, so “healing” was welcome. However, with our modern technological capacity combined with a breadth of opportunities available to people of all abilities, “healing” is a subjective assumption. And in the case of my campus “pray-ers,” it said more about their own feelings of discomfort with disability than did my own lived experience.
Disability as an identity is intensely personal. It varies for everyone. I have grappled with my identity as a person with a perceived disability. As a child, I shied away from the unsolicited attention my gait occasionally brought me. Then, as a young adult, I over-identified with my Cerebral Palsy, falsely believing it needed to be introduced, defended, understood by all, whether stranger, friend or foe. Now at the ripe old age of 29, I understand my Cerebral Palsy to be a part of my lived experience. It has taught me empathy, patience, and self-acceptance. I’ve come to embrace it as valid and integral to my understanding of who I am.
There are aspects of my life where I personally need prayer. But to look at the world and all its sorrow, and say that what needs changing is the way that I walk, is ridiculous. I believe it is not the disability itself but the perception of disability that needs prayer. The assumption that the lived experience of a person with a disability is somehow “less than” is a more appropriate target for healing.
Abigail Craig is a staff advocate at Disability Rights Arkansas. Email her at email@example.com.