What Can SHE Do?

By Janet E. Schaller

“Zoe”[1] steps out of her car, reaches in the back for her walker, and moves in her atypical way toward the door of a nonprofit organization where she volunteers. A woman watching Zoe through the window says to the receptionist, “What can she do?” In an instant the onlooker reduces Zoe to a single trait and crafts it to encompass the whole of her. Zoe is wearing a suit and holding a briefcase, both indicative of a professional position. The onlooker fails to take those features into account. The noticeable impairment and assistive device cancel out all other attributes.[2]

Paraphrasing Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we can endeavor to realize we are all members of one body. When one member of the body refuses to welcome the gifts of another, the community is impaired.

“Wendy”[3] and a friend are sitting at a local restaurant. The server comes to the table to take their orders. After writing down the friend’s lunch choices, the server continues speaking to the friend, points to Wendy in her wheelchair, and asks, “What does she want?” Like the woman watching Zoe, the server sees only disability in Wendy and assumes her inability to articulate what she wants for lunch. The server takes no notice of Wendy surveying the menu or engaging in lively conversation with her friend. Wendy’s chair and her observable impairments seem to take precedence over her other characteristics. 

Beyond Stereotypes

As a woman with disabilities myself, I am interested in learning about the lives and experiences of others who have noticeable physical disabilities. Zoe and Wendy are two from a group of 26 women I have interviewed for my research on disability and gender. Their stories offer us a view of some of the barriers women with disabilities encounter, their diverse responses to those challenges, and their journey toward full inclusion and participation in social and congregational life. 

Zoe and Wendy are not the one-dimensional characters ascribed to them in those incidents.[4] The assumptions of the onlooker at the window and the server at the restaurant reflect attitudinal barriers and cultural biases. The women I interviewed shared multiple experiences of being seen as unwanted or undesirable as an employee, coworker, renter, partner, or student, among others. Yet these women chose to resist the position society ascribed to them and live into who they felt or knew themselves to be.[5]When efforts to resist failed to move the roadblock, they bounced back and tried a different strategy. They were determined to be seen as persons rather than stereotypes.

“A Closed Mouth Never Gets Fed”

In her mid-30s when we met, Zoe had graduated from college with a degree in social work and was working on a graduate degree. As a Black woman, she sits at the intersection of three stigmatized groups—atypical physicality, race, and gender.[6] The daughter of a single mom with an extended family devoted to her well-being, she learned early in life to refuse to let obstacles hold her back. “‘A closed mouth never gets fed,’ is what I was always taught as a child,” Zoe recalled. “You need to be an advocate for yourself sometimes. So holding onto those things you were taught as a child, listening and watching people being advocates for you, you learn very quickly to speak up for yourself.”  

Finding creative solutions to obstacles is one of Zoe’s many gifts. “They [her family] never let me say ‘I can’t.’ That was not in my vocabulary.” Though she had taken driver’s education in high school, she didn’t get a driver’s license until after her first job. Thus, she needed transportation to and from work. She found a cab driver whose route and schedule matched hers. “That man not only took me back and forth to work, [but] got me there on time—rain, sleet, snow, or shine. … The meter didn’t run until I got in the car.” She paid him when she got paid. Since he was her transportation to the bank on payday, he knew he would get paid every other week. “I, in turn, helped him with a lot of family issues.” The knowledge gained from her social work degree and her job helped him when his family members ran into problems. They helped each other. Zoe no longer takes a cab to work. She owns her own car—and her own home. 

Zoe is skilled in building coalitions with others. This gift changed the mind of the woman who had been looking out the window and said, “What can she do?” Zoe and the woman became good friends, with Zoe encouraging her to get a desired graduate degree and guiding her as she confronted a life-threatening situation in a relationship.

When we talked, Zoe worked in a nonprofit organization helping people in need find food and shelter. She says God’s call for her to help others came at a young age. “God let me know my purpose very early. … I had so many people to help me. … They helped me in such a way that not only helped me but helped my family.” Zoe’s motto is, “Pay it forward.” And she does. Along with her work to help people with housing and food insecurity she also assists others with disabilities to find their way out of group housing. As a homeowner she understands that desire and willingly helps others who are able to live alone find single housing.

Spontaneity Thwarted

Wendy was in her early 50s when we talked. It was via a telephone call so I have no knowledge of her race or ethnicity or the extent of her impairments. She currently operates a motorized wheelchair for mobility. In her teens she used a manual wheelchair and ran into problems in high school. In those pre-ADA days, there was no attendant available to push her chair, so it became the responsibility of other students to move her from class to class. Her classmates were not eager to do that regularly. An exception occurred one day when a student wanted to leave class early to avoid dissecting a frog and decided the only way out was to leave with Wendy. So the student concocted a story about Wendy being ill and needing to see the school nurse immediately. This put Wendy in a bind. She felt fine and was happy to stay, but she was dependent upon other students’ willingness to push her chair. She felt she had no choice but to go along with the ruse. Wendy learned early the cultural expectation that the nondisabled take priority. 

Wendy is dependent on the good will of others for transportation. Her limited financial support comes from government funding that only pays for transportation if it is for a doctor’s visit. Thus she is often stuck at home, like others who rely on such funding. If Wendy wants to go out for lunch, do shopping, or see a movie, she has to hope that there is someone with the same goal who is happy to take her along and with whom she can connect at the appropriate time. Spontaneity isn’t an option. She’s grateful to go out and enjoy a new experience. She’s grateful for the companionship of friends. She’s also frustrated that her sense of initiative is thwarted by few local transportation options. 

Bottom-Line Mentality

Our society is structured—city plans made, houses constructed, worship places designed, and jobs created—for the nondisabled majority. People with disabilities have been largely ignored in this arrangement. The ADA led to accessibility changes in public buildings, but neither the housing market nor religious organizations has to comply. Even medical facilities sometimes come up short in their accessibility. Following a bone density test that revealed significant osteoporosis, Wendy was prescribed a particular medication. In order to be authorized to take that medicine she was required to attend a class. The class was at the hospital. She had no problem getting into the hospital or riding an elevator to the designated floor, but the classroom had a few steps leading to the door. Wheelchairs don’t go up steps. The leaders of the class lifted her and the wheelchair together to get her into the room, but such action risks damage to both her and those lifting. 

Wendy’s affable demeanor, like Zoe’s, makes it easy for her to connect with people of all ages. After graduating from high school, she earned an associate degree in early childhood education at a local community college. Her job search in her field brought frustrations. At one point (before ADA), an interviewer bluntly told her that it wasn’t cost-effective to hire her as a teacher, because he’d have to hire someone else to cover what she couldn’t do. She admitted to me, “There was no way for me to respond, because it was totally true.” Human gifts are so much larger than we imagine. Their potential contribution to the education of children is lost when the fiscal bottom line is the deciding factor. What if the interviewer had thought creatively, beyond financial limits, and found a way to include Wendy? She wouldn’t need to be the only teacher in a particular class. The pupils would experience a person who gets along well with children, is easy to talk with, could give them her undivided attention, and was educated in the field. Her presence could help the classroom teacher focus on other issues as they arise—and give the youngsters an understanding and experience of people with disabilities beyond what the dominant culture knows and can teach.

A Popular Speaker

Wendy did not give up her desire to work with children. She became part of an Easter Seals project that had people with disabilities visit local schools. As a guest speaker she participated for more than a year in this program. She enjoyed it, and the children enjoyed her. One of the children asked if he could write to her. She was delighted; they corresponded for years.

Wendy is personable, resilient, and works hard to weigh and manage the variable needs of herself and others. At restaurants, it’s common for servers to ask her companion, “What does she want?” and never herself, she says. It happens about 90 percent of the time, by her estimate. Sometimes they don’t even give her a menu! And what does she do when she hears those words? Her most common response is to reply, “She’ll have …” and announce her meal choice. In speaking up, she insists on being the one who knows and can say what she wants.

A Two-Way Street

Both Zoe and Wendy are deeply woven into the fabric of their communities of faith. When worship is over, Zoe is often sitting at a table near the door ready to help those who express a need for housing or food. Using her weekday job experience, she’s able to point people in the right direction or connect them with others who can help. 

Wendy is the contact person for her congregation’s prayer chain and serves on several committees. Her inclusion in the church family is the result of a serendipitous encounter. She was sitting on her porch when a bike rider was passing by. They struck up a conversation. The man on the bike was the pastor of a local church that was hosting a dinner later in the week. He invited Wendy, saying he would pick her up. He did what he promised to do and later arranged for her transportation to worship on Sundays. By now there are seven people who take turns picking her up each week. It is not a one-way street relationship. Wendy is vital to that community of faith, and they are integral to her involvement. The importance of the bike-riding pastor is beyond measure to her. “He gave me a life,” she told me. 

Her life did indeed change following that meeting. Most of her friends come from the congregation. Her transportation and companionship for lunches, shopping, or movies are often provided by members. I suspect, though, that it was her initiative that led to that first pivotal encounter. I imagine Wendy as the one who noticed and greeted the bike-riding passerby, thus beginning this life-changing conversation. 

No Theatrics

Zoe occasionally worships with her godparents in a Pentecostal congregation. She also has led classes and workshops there. Nonetheless, at least once she was the target of one of the ministers. Her walker caught his attention. He walked to her row and whispered,“The Lord told me I need to lay a hand on you.” Zoe is confident that if the Lord told him that, the Lord would also have told her. Still, she’s not going to prevent anyone from praying for her. That day, however, when he took it further and said, “The Lord says you should be healed,” she resisted, sensing that the next step would be a “show” in front of the congregation. Zoe isn’t willing “to play with God in that manner.” She had been injured in a serious traffic accident several years prior when another vehicle rammed into her car. She suffered broken bones and damage to some internal organs. So she told the pastor, “I’ve already received that prayer, because I have been healed. There was a time when I could not walk. So thank you. I’ve received that.” In speaking to the minister, her intent was to be courteous, and to welcome prayer, but also to let him know that she had no intention of participating in any theatrics.[7]

Several of the women with whom I spoke mentioned neighbors or strangers approaching them in their apartments or public places, wanting to pray for them to be healed. The women found it intrusive and resented it. They want and expect others to accept them as they are. There’s an underlying message in these invitations that people with disabilities are inadequate and “lesser than” nondisabled people, rather than simply one of many variations of human form. Furthermore, that assumption suggests that healing is the only way for them to be made “whole” or even to be acceptable to God.

Ways Forward

The experience of disability is unique for each person—interactions with family, friends, strangers, church, and community all play a role. Zoe is living fully into a life she believes God planned for her. She deftly employs her gifts and skills in advocating for herself and others, building coalitions and seeking creative solutions to problems she confronts. Wendy has run into more unmovable roadblocks than Zoe. Still, she sometimes finds other pathways to use her gifts, both in church and community. Like Wendy, many of the women with whom I spoke never found jobs. Others, like Zoe, had careers, often in organizations that center on disability. Resistance measures taken by Zoe and Wendy came in response to individual encounters. Other women participated in group programs like those sponsored by Centers for Independent Living (CILs) or ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today) and engaged in public resistance and protest. Their need for resistance and activism grew out of defiance, arising from the confusion, or fury, inside when one glance leads to “What can she do?” and “What does she want?” and other symptoms of unjust treatment. 

How do we create a more just society? First, when we dubiously focus on some ideal of the body as a cultural norm, we blame the body for any impairment short of the norm, or dismiss the individual as unable or inadequate. That’s too narrow a view. We need to get to know the person, to see beyond the stereotype. Second, we can acknowledge the urgency of counteracting erroneous cultural biases, persistently seek new strategies of change, and practice resistance. Third, paraphrasing Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we can endeavor to realize we are all members of one body; we are all part of one community.[8] All of us, people with and without disabilities alike, have gifts to contribute to the whole body. When one member of the body refuses to welcome or accept the gifts of another, the community is impaired. When all members join together and learn to respect and honor one another, the community rejoices.

As people of faith, what steps will we take, individually and collectively, with and without disabilities, to create congregations, workspaces, and neighborhoods that are more just, where all are welcome, all can enter, and all can flourish?

Pastoral theologian Janet E. Schaller, Minister of Word and Sacrament (Honorably Retired) in the Presbyterian Church (USA), has served as an associate pastor, educator, and pastoral counselor in a variety of settings, including a congregation, seminary, and counseling center. She has a Ph.D. from Claremont School of Theology. Her article, “Resisting Stares and Stereotypes: Affirming Life,” appeared in the book Pastoral Bearings: Lived Religion and Pastoral Theology (Lexington Books, 2010), edited by Jane F. Maynard, Leonard Hummel, and Mary Clark Moschella.

[1] A pseudonym.

[2] I use the word “impairment” because it currently seems to be a favorite term for indicating an atypical body feature. Physicians often use it. Unfortunately, though, it continues the cultural practice of emphasizing physical differences, rather than focusing on an individual as a whole person—body, mind, and spirit together.

[3] A pseudonym.

[4] Crediting W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson differentiates between felt identity and ascribed identity. “Simply put, one’s felt identity is how one experiences oneself as an embodied, perceiving, conscious subject at the center of one’s own world. One’s ascribed identity is the subject position other people project upon one or understand one to occupy.” See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 34, no.2 (2014), citing W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terry Hume Oliver (W.W. Norton and Company, 1999 edition).

[5] Ibid.

[6] In Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 4, author Erving Goffman identifies three types of stigma, the first being “physical deformities,” followed by “blemishes of individual character,” and “race, nation, and religion.” Gender didn’t make his list, though gender has been a stereotyped characteristic for ages.

[7] A brief reference to this incident also appears in “Reconfiguring Dis/ability: Multiple and Narrative Constructions of Self,” Pastoral Psychology, 57 (2008).

[8] I Cor. 12:12f.