DISABILITY & CULTURE: Michelle’s Take, Part I

Fri 01 Jul 2022

DISABILITY & CULTURE: Michelle's Take, Part I

By Michelle Eastman*

Tell us about yourself and the work you're doing in the disability community. 

My name is Michelle Eastman. I am one of an identical set of triplets, and my sister Meagan and I both have cerebral palsy due to being born three months early. I am originally from Orange County, California, but I am currently in Boston, and I’m completing my Master of Divinity.

Growing up, I was always been deeply involved in the disability community, but most recently, my work in the disability community is related to disability and inclusion in the church. A large focus of my graduate degree program has been about studying the Christian tradition and religion in connection to disability.

What is your current relationship with your CP, and how has it changed over your lifetime?
Well, this changes on any given day, which I know many people with CP can relate to. But I would say for the latter part of my twenties, I have really found a lot of pride in my disability and am constantly working on not being ableist to myself. For example, I have learned not to be afraid to ask for help.

I spent much of my life trying to convince myself that I am not disabled, but as soon as I started being honest with myself, I found liberation, and I also found a lot of joy. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss quote, “why fit in when you were born to stand out?" Currently, my life's narrative has shifted to make space for all that a life with a disability entails, which includes sorrow, joy, and compassion.

What is disability theology and how does it relate to your personal experience?

The word "theology" is often translated as "the study of God" or, more simply, what I like to call "God-talk." For many centuries, the academic discipline of theology did not include people with disabilities or women. However, in the last fifty years or so, disability theology has emerged to join the theological conversations that are often dominated by able-bodied white men.

My dad is a pastor, so I have been involved with the church ever since I was a little kid. However, it wasn't until I got older that I started having negative experiences with people trying to pray for healing for my disability. I really struggled with the dominant assumption in certain charismatic Christian traditions or denominations that assumed I needed healing because I walked with a limp. In contrast to many Christians who tried to heal me, I have also had people who view my disability as a spiritual strength or people who have come up to me to tell me that heaven is the only answer to my disability.

Sadly, none of these so-called "theological perspectives" made space for the celebration of my body and disability in the present. So, as a part of my graduate studies, I started interviewing people with disabilities to see if they also shared similar experiences or interactions with Christians.

To my surprise, out of the fifteen people (some who were religious and some who were not), all shared experiences similar to mine. Many people I talked to shared numerous experiences of strangers chasing them down in the streets, bathrooms, or at dinner to trying to pray for them.

As a Christian, hearing the hurt, shame, and unawareness that other Christians were causing people with disabilities revealed a great need to me that something must change in the church. After a lot of research and conversation, it was obvious to me that the church is one of the most exclusive places not only in terms of beliefs but also in terms of physical accessibility. So, out of this revelation, and these conversations with the disability community, I created an Instagram called @disabilitytheology, a place to reclaim conversations and misconceptions about God that celebrates embodied difference.

*Michelle's story is part of DISABILITY & CULTURE — a series that uses the disabled lens, including personal experience, to examine social and cultural topics. 

The DISABILITY & CULTURE series shouldn't be read or construed to contain any medical advice or medical endorsement by Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation. Only you and your doctor know what's best for you. Please consult your doctor for medical advice.

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