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James Durbin found fame on American Idol this season, though he was cut this past Wednesday. I rarely watch American Idol, and I know little about James Durbin or his music. Except this, Durbin lives with Asperger syndrome and with Tourette syndrome. I don’t want to set him up as “an inspiration,” which would do him a disservice, but I do want to set him and the staff of American Idol out as trailblazers.

A common pattern in the media features people with disabilities as “the inspiration.” You know the story. Someone who has a serious injury, or who is born with a disfiguring condition, overcomes great odds to find success. There’s nothing wrong with inspiring others or being inspired by another person’s story. But there is a problem when this theme is so dominant in telling stories about people with disabilities. Because it is such a dominant theme, it implies that people with disabilities have worth because they inspire others, and it implies that people with disabilities who are not an inspiration do not have worth.

Durbin is a trailblazer. When African American Jackie Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he blazed the trail by breaking the color barrier in the major leagues. Jesse Owens blazed the trail at the 1936 Olympics. Tillie Anderson blazed the trail for women in competitive cycling in the 1890’s as did Amelia Earhart in aviation in the 1920’s.

Each of these people may have been inspirations to others as they broke new ground. But their primary role in society was not to inspire others, but to blaze the trail. Until Jackie Robinson, no African American had played Major League Baseball since the 1880’s. Jesse Owen blew apart Hitler’s conception of the Aryan master race. Tillie Anderson shocked the male-dominated biking world with her cycling prowess. Amelia Earhart did the same in the nearly all-male world of flying.

People’s stereotypes about African Americans and women didn’t allow room in their mental framework for Owens winning races in the Olympics or Anderson winning biking races. Similarly, people’s mental frameworks don’t have room for people with disabilities in many roles in society. As Owens broke barriers, so James Durbin breaks a barrier by his performance prowess on American Idol.

Likewise, the staff of American Idol blazed a trail by allowing him to compete. Many people view someone who has a disability and assume that their disability affects and colors and disables their entire personhood, and makes them incapable of doing anything well. James Durbin helps dispel that stereotype, and the staff of American Idol encouraged it for which they too deserve credit. I assume that he was not cut because of his disability. I hope that he was cut because the judges deemed that the three finalists were better. So be it. That’s the way competitions work.

I’m delighted he was given a chance to shine, and he did. I hope that churches will give people who have disabilities an opportunity to shine: in leadership roles, in worship leadership, in leading small groups, in all other areas of ministry.

Will you take this idea to your own church? Who in your church has gifts that are not being used because people are writing him or her off? How can you advocate for him or her with the church leadership? Will you?


I was so disappointed when James was cut! He is very talented. Thank you for your reflections on the disability perspective. It does make one think. 

Mark, may I ask how you heard of my great-aunt Tillie?  What we have heard about her all our lives - and what I saw even as a child living up the hill from her - is that she did what she was good at even though it was not accepted in the society of that day.  You may find it interesting that she was an early student of D.L.Moody, that wonderfully spiritual man who brought so many to Christ. He had a different view than my Moster Tillie (Moster is "aunt" or "mother's sister" in Swedish.) It is my understanding that he thought the bicycle was one of the worst things that could happen to America, because Sunday rides into the country were taking the people away from church services.  We have an old newspaper arcticle with Moody on one side with an announcement that he was preaching in the city and Tillie on the other side saying "Don't tell him I am racing here, because he will pull me off my ride and i can't afford to lose a lap!"  Of course it was a joke, but it did have a bit of truth in it.  It does make me wonder how much of what we debate today as "Christian" or "unChristian" is in reality a corporate wrestling with the opinions or traditions of our time. But isn't it the Father's heart that we really need to be after?

Mark Stephenson on March 12, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)


So Tillie was your great aunt! I love your story about her and Moody.

I'm sorry, but I have no idea where I ran across a story about her - newspaper, magazine article maybe? Wherever I read it, I remember something about how she scandalized others by wearing (gasp) pants to ride her bicycle. She must have been quite a woman.

Thanks for your note.

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