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What does God have to say about disability?

A while ago, I read a scholarly book called Disability in the Hebrew Bible, by Saul Olyan. I have a review of the book right now with Books and Culture. It begins...

If I had a nickel for every time Saul Olyan uses the word "stigmatize" and its cognates in Disability in the Hebrew Bible, I would have been rich by the end of this slim volume. Well, maybe not rich, but I would have had a lot of nickels. The lingo of the Ivory Tower permeates the book, and it impedes Olyan's ability to evaluate constructively the language, imagery, stories, and laws surrounding persons with disabilities in the Hebrew Bible.

Olyan sets out to "reconstruct the Hebrew Bible's particular ideas of what is disabling and the potential social ramifications of those ideas," and he does so with the assumption that disability is "largely if not exclusively a social construction designed to exclude and exert power." Olyan is not alone in his assumption; scholars within the field of disability studies generally assume that disability is a concept not grounded in reality but grounded in unfortunate notions of what constitutes "the norm."

I'm sympathetic to this position. For instance, most people think of deafness as a disability. But consider a small island community in which fifty percent of the inhabitants have inherited a gene causing deafness. In order for everyday life to happen on that island, everyone—those who can hear and those who cannot—needs to know sign language. Because deafness is considered an acceptable version of normal, it is no longer disabling. Or consider my friend Jessica. She graduated from the University of Richmond as a Cigna scholar. She lives in an apartment in Old Town, Alexandria. She drives herself to her job at a government agency, and she is now working on her MBA. She has traveled to Europe. She has also endured fifteen operations and walks with canes, due to cerebral palsy. Although there are limitations on her abilities (walking on ice, for instance, is more treacherous for her than for me), due to medical advances and structural accommodations to buildings and walkways, her experience of life is akin to that of any other twentysomething professional in the United States. In many ways, especially in our culture, disability is a social construct, and it is important to expose it as such. But it is unhelpful to take this modern critique of the concept of disability, superimpose it upon biblical texts, and conclude, in Olyan's words, that biblical writers "create categories of stigmatized persons whom they seek to marginalize as well as their antitype."

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