DISABILITY RIGHTS AND WRONGS
By Mark Woods
World Council of Churches – Feature
Contact: + 41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363 email@example.com
For immediate release – 14/02/2006
To a casual thinker, if someone is blind, or has lost a limb, or has
cerebral palsy, it’s only humane to want to fix it, and if it can’t be
fixed it is a matter for regret.
But according to Gregor Wolbring, a bioethics professor in Canada who is
part of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) which met over
the weekend before the WCC Assembly – and who can speak from personal
experience – it is not a simple matter of fixing the problem. There are,
he believes, two different issues disabled people are facing.
One relates to how their body functions or their “impairment”. Another
relates to the disability that person actually experiences – “the social
discrimination they face due to their impairment,” he says.
“Both issues need different solutions. Some disabled people might want
their impairment to be fixed so they can function like everyone else.
However, many others rather want the disablement, the social discrimination to be fixed – some because they see their functioning as a variation and
not as an impairment, others because the fix of the ‘impairment’ is
economically less feasible than the elimination of the disablement.
“Often society is simply unwilling to eliminate the social discriminations. Indeed, society often generates new disabilities, new social discriminations, based on a person’s functioning,” he continues. “Even more, we
generate more and more ‘impaired’ people by giving labels which medicalize
more and more variations of human functioning which don’t require that.
For instance, someone is shy, so we say they have an anxiety disorder.”
Furthermore we medicalize the very term “health”, which he believes is a
fundamentally retrograde step. “Years ago, the World Health Organization
talked about health as consisting of physical, mental and social well-being,” he says. “Although this definition is not perfect and could include
other components such as spiritual wellbeing, today the term health
increasingly is used in such a way that it’s only about medical health and
does not include social wellbeing any more.”
This reconceptualization of health, he says, leads to the development that
under “health” interventions, we only think about fixing the body of the
person – we don’t consider their social wellbeing. More than this, the
increasing ability of new technologies to modify the human body beyond its
normal capacities means the medicalization of the human body leads to the
body being seen as just a step in evolution, and therefore defective.
He speaks, for instance, of “trans-humanists”, who see no reason to
believe that humanity has reached an evolutionary halt, and look to
technology to help it make the next step. It’s a concept which has
theological consequences – one being that we could all be seen as being
The trans-humanist concept brings into sharp focus something close to the
heart of the matter for Gregor. Improvements have to be paid for – and
because it is very likely that only the rich or relatively rich will be
able to afford them, he believes we will see the appearance of an ability
divide and a new class of so-called disabled people. This is a class he
calls “technology-poor disabled” people who can’t afford enhancements.
There are issues around how such improvements are to be financed which go
to the heart of our systems of economic and social justice, because it is
impossible to consider disability rights without thinking about issues of
poverty. As one speaker at the EDAN meetings pointed out, only two per
cent of people with disabilities in developing countries have access to
rehabilitation and basic services, and only three percent have access to
If a medicalized, trans-humanized form of “health” becomes available to
only the rich few, with the many poor knowing that they can attain
physical perfection if – and only if – they can pay for it, there are huge
“If our concept of our body is not adequate – if I can’t accept me as who
I am, and can’t afford the enhancement I think I need – there are
far-reaching psychological and psychosomatic consequences,” Gregor
What’s needed, then, is for a fundamental rethink about attitudes to
disabled people, and the addressing of the social discrimination they
face. Gregor says that such a proactive approach is as yet a long way
“The disability rights approach to ethics is not accepted in academia,
unlike the feminist approach. Medical ethics sees us as patients – our
lower quality of life is caused by our impairment, not by social realities, and so the solution has to be found in our bodies. That doesn’t allow for
a disability rights approach.
“So we become a target. Genetic testing for instance was sold on the
negative image of Down’s syndrome; however it did not stop there. Now
there are tests for sex selection, or the predisposition to cancer.”
It is difficult to change the way society at large perceives persons who
are obviously different. “There are things like access to buildings,
fights fought for decades and fought over and over,” he says. “If you have
to fight for the elimination of social discrimination over and over, it’s
easy to see how disabled people with access to money move to an enhancement fix – why should I just get a bionic leg which is as good as yours, when
I can get a better one and give you a good kicking? Many people fall for
But ultimately, it’s a question of who people are, not in the eyes of
others but in their own eyes and in the eyes of God, and the church has a
role to play in changing that perception and eliminating the social
discrimination. He quotes the scripture passage which says, “Make level
paths for their feet” – a text which “could be also interpreted as
supporting the elimination of the social barriers over the medical fix”.
Ultimately, Gregor believes that there is more to disabled people than
that “they want or should be medically fixed”. In fact, he questions the
distinction between “us” and “they”. “At the core of being church there is
no ‘they’, he says, “only a ‘we’.”
Mark Woods is a UK Baptist minister and editor of the Baptist Times.
Assembly website: www.wcc-assembly.info
Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy.
This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the
Additional information: Juan Michel,+41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363
The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness
and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of
churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 348 Protestant,
Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million
Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman
Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, from
the Methodist Church in Kenya. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.