What does it look like for a seminary to be welcoming and inclusive for people with disabilities? How might students theologically engage with issues and concerns surrounding disabilities? In what ways can we equip pastors, theologians, missionaries and psychologists to be more sensitive to the issues surrounding disabilities? These are some of the core concerns of Able Theology, a student group at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Able Theology, made up of students with and without disabilities, aims to foster a greater sense of community among students, faculty and staff at Fuller by encouraging greater participation of people with disabilities in the life of the seminary. In doing so, the group aims to generate a larger vision among seminary students training to be pastors, theologians, missionaries and psychologists that accounts for the diverse experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities. This engagement, it is hoped, will equip students, faculty and staff for more holistic ministry as they encounter people with disabilities. Such engagement contributes to generating a greater sensitivity not only to the potential challenges people with disabilities might face but also to unconscious ableist biases against people with disabilities that might be present in congregations, cross-cultural contexts and even in the broader arena of theological discourse.
While pastors, theologians, missionaries and psychologists undoubtedly encounter people with disabilities in their respective work, disabilities are not a common topic of conversation among seminary students. Indeed, in my systematic theology courses, for example, discussion of disabilities only occurred once when I raised questions about how they fit into the broader theological conversations. Furthermore, thinking about and engaging disabilities theologically is often not a central concern of theology, intercultural studies, or psychology classes. It is in this context that Able Theology at Fuller seeks to foster wider engagement with disabilities from a theological perspective, both in terms of curriculum and in welcoming students with disabilities to participate in the academic and social life of the seminary.
Started in 2013 by Fuller students Esther Lee and Bethany Fox, Able Theology invites students, faculty and staff to begin having conversations about disabilities in the context of seminary life. Discussions range from fostering an understanding of different models of disabilities (social and medical) to how we understand disabilities theologically in a broken and fallen world. Speakers have included Drs. John Swinton and Brian Brock as well as Dr. Amos Yong, currently on faculty at Fuller. Monthly meetings have addressed topics of Biblical understanding of disability and healing, inspiration porn (see Stella Young’s TED talk), and as well as offering opportunities for sharing by students with disabilities about their experiences at Fuller, both positive and negative.
Of central importance to Able Theology is seeking to understand what it means to be made in the image of God and how people with disabilities fit into this understanding. Without such understanding, people with disabilities easily become marginalized and, although unintentional, unwelcoming environments are often the consequence. By amplifying the voices and experiences of people with disabilities, all the while considering such voices and experiences in light of Scripture, Able Theology contributes to the community and academic life of Fuller Theological Seminary by encouraging a more welcoming and inclusive environment that opens students, faculty and staff to encountering the Trinitarian God in the context of disabilities.