Disability and Spirituality

Recovering Wholeness

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William C. Gaventa
Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , March
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


William C. Gaventa’s book, Disability and Spirituality, is in his words, a practice of tikkum olam, a repairing of breaches. More specifically, Gaventa attempts to repair the breach between the professional care of persons with disabilities and the spirituality that so many of those persons find essential to their own identity but have also been wounded by in the past. The fact that some persons with disabilities have found identity-forming community in religious faith contexts may be surprising on the face of it, given the way disability has been characterized throughout the ages as a lack of faith, a sign of the devil’s presence, or the result of cruel cosmic providence. The abuse that faith communities have brought upon persons with disabilities by such theologizing has rightly made disability care professionals weary, if not outright cynical, of including spirituality as a central pillar of flourishing. 

Nevertheless, Gaventa is clear that medical approaches to disability have their own problematic history, which has focused on individual bodily or intellectual “defect” rather than the social and environmental factors that contribute to disability. Recent models of definition and care that focus on social and environmental factors have allowed deeper reflection on quality of life, rights, personal agency, communal purpose, and self-determination that provide compelling inroads for repairing the breach between spirituality and disability. In Gaventa’s words, “the current models for understanding disability … beg for attention to the role of spirituality and faith” (41). Moreover, Gaventa argues that the inclusion of spirituality and faith within these models of disability would contribute to their goals of holistic care. 

How so? For Gaventa, spirituality pursues exactly those questions that are not only central to the flourishing of persons with disabilities, but any human being. Insofar as professional caregivers leave out these central questions from their relationships with persons with disabilities, they will struggle to live up to their own goals and they will deepen the breach between faith and disability, and between those with disabilities and everyone else. Gaventa sees spirituality as a window into a common humanity where difference and need are acknowledged without forever isolating us from others. What means most to you? Whom and what do you love? Whom do you belong to? What do you hope for or feel called to do? These questions demand attention to the core spiritual themes of identity, community, purpose, and agency that have now found a more welcoming home in disability studies and models of holistic care. Moreover, they demand patient listening and attention, which themselves help to restore the humanity of persons with disabilities and help caregivers and others avoid the pitfalls of seeing persons with disabilities and their families as either too beautiful or too ugly, too saintly or too stained, for ordinary life. In this way, Gaventa’s book invites reflection on a deeply theological view of humanness that all pastoral theology and pastoral care demands. 

That theological view of humanness is on display as Gaventa turns to every aspect of disability care with a pastoral eye gained only by a lifetime of experience: What does it mean to grow physically and spiritually as a person with a disability? How can persons with disabilities transition into adulthood and self-determination? How can persons with disabilities find meaningful work and vocation? How can persons with disabilities find celebration, rather than abandonment, at the end of life? According to Gaventa, these real-life issues cannot be answered without the holistic lens that spirituality grants. Furthermore, they require an even wider lens that includes the support of families, the self-care of fulltime caregivers, the inclusion of spirituality into professional assessments of need, and the demands of friendship and religious community. Gaventa even includes a designated chapter on the challenging behavior of those with disabilities, how they can strain relationships, and how caregivers can provide positive behavioral supports. In each chapter, the reader is drawn to notice both the unique needs, hopes, and desires of persons with disabilities, but, even more so, how those reveal our own human needs, hopes, and desires. In this way, Gaventa’s book opens up into wider discussion of the inclusivity of faith communities and the spiritual demands that their convictions create when it comes to caring for those differently abled. 

Attention to all of these facets reveals the autobiographical nature of this book, written by someone who has dedicated their life to pastoral care of persons with disabilities, their families, and their professional caregivers. Because of the sheer scope of its attention and wisdom, and the care with which it approaches its topic, I find it difficult to point out any large-scale weaknesses of the book. I think it would have helped to sign-post  the thesis or goal of each chapter more often, and the way it contributes to the larger task of the book. I would have also appreciated even more material on the way the book’s content impacts theological reflection on disability, or a “theology of disability” more generally. But these are less criticisms than hopes that Gaventa is looking to continue the kind of written work that this book exhibits.           

Disability and Spirituality is not a textbook, a thesis-driven argument, or even a manifesto of disability theory. It is a holistic practical theology, written through the lens of pastoral care, for those with physical and intellectual disabilities that should be required reading for pastors, chaplains, spiritual care-givers, and pastoral theologians. It is a welcome reminder that spiritual care of persons with disabilities, no matter how difficult, is bound up with our own spiritual care and the responsibilities of faith communities to become even more radically welcoming.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon L. Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Ethics at at Baylor University. He works at the intersection of theological anthropology, moral philosophy, Christian social ethics, and philosophies of language.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William C. Gaventa is Chair of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability and Director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. He is past Editor of the Journal of Disability and Religion and served as President of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).


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