Reconsidering Intellectual Disability
By Jason Reimer Greig (Georgetown University Press, 2015)
In early 2004, Ashley’s parents faced a difficult decision. Their 6-year-old daughter suffered from a form of brain damage that made her unable to sit up, walk, talk, or hold an object. Concerned about their continued ability to care for her, Ashley’s parents opted for a treatment that would slow her physical growth and prevent sexual maturity.
At the same time, Mennonite minister Jason Reimer Greig was serving as spiritual director for a L’Arche community in Nova Scotia. L’Arche is a federation of communities committed to sharing the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. Greig recalls that his community reacted to Ashley’s story with a combination of “subtly stunned amazement and horror.” The experience launched Greig on a philosophical and theological odyssey that culminated in the publication of his new book, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability.
The first half of the book is a critique of both the medical and social models of disability. In the medical model, people with disabilities are often reduced to “objects in need of repair.” The social model, developed by disability rights activists, argues that “disability” exists only because of oppressive social structures and discriminatory attitudes. Greig agrees with this critique, but argues that the social model’s strong emphasis on personal autonomy marginalizes those, like Ashley, whose intellectual disabilities place them in a state of complete dependency.
The second half focuses on recognizing persons with disabilities as full members of the church. Greig offers a deep reflection on the significance of Jesus naming us as “friends” (John 15:15). As friends of God, we are called to friendship with one another, a set of relationships characterized by mutual dependence. With this self-understanding, the church can see persons with intellectual disabilities “not as passive objects of beneficent care, but as friends and thus potential teachers in the Christian life.”
This article appears in the March 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 3, page 41).