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Religious Attitudes toward the Disabled


One can readily find evidence of the low regard that various religions have for the disabled. Like religious misogyny (or “hatred of women”: see Kramer & Moore, 2002), prejudicial practices against the disabled often have doctrinal justification. In this essay I (a) cite scriptural sources for these attitudes, (b) describe some of the discriminatory behaviors associated with them, and (c) sample some of the apologetics used to deal with obvious conflicts generated by purportedly kind and merciful belief systems that not only tolerate, but actually encourage, exclusionary actions. I realize, of course, that the sources that I have searched often contain different messages, some of which contradict the messages I highlight. My concern is not so much the inconsistency between the various scriptures, but the ability of believers to find a scriptural rationalization for practically any behavior.

Jewish attitudes toward the disabled rely on strict biblical injunctions against the participation of the physically handicapped in bringing sacrifice: “none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles” (Leviticus 21: 17-20).[1] Or consider Exodus 4:11: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” The latter has served as the scriptural basis of the main monotheistic religions’ belief in a divine source for all afflictions.[2] According to Tzvi Marx (2002), Halachic literature (the body of Jewish religious laws) “reveals instances of apparent indifference, or even callousness, with respect to the disabled: laws and liturgical passages that appear to evince a dismissive, even derisive attitude toward individuals with disabilities” (p. 1). Marx saw in this attitude “an internal ambivalence,” a “dissonance within the halakhic culture itself,” in view of the disabilities of major figures in Jewish thought: “Isaac, who is blind, Jacob, who limps; the initially childless matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, and the speech-disabled Moses—are no less esteemed because of disability” (p. 2).

In his highly influential Guide for the Perplexed, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides offered an apologia for the harsh strictures of the Pentateuch:

A priest who had a blemish was not allowed to officiate; and not only those who had a blemish were excluded from the service, but also … those that had an abnormal appearance; for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the temple was to be held in great reverence by all. (1919/1194, p. 357)

The Hindu doctrine of Samsara connects individual differences to actions performed in a past life. Mental and physical suffering “is thought to be part of the unfolding of karma and is the consequence of past inappropriate action (mental, verbal or physical) that occurred in either one’s current life or in a past life” (Whitman, 2007). Hindu mythology often portrays people with disabilities negatively, such as the blind king Dritarashtra and the lame Shakuni, both of whom appear as cruel and evil. And Lord Vishnu declared that disabled people have no place in Heaven and refused to wed Lakshmi’s disfigured sister, arranging her to marry a tree (World Bank, 2007).

All of this received wisdom inevitably influences the behavior of believers toward the disabled. Before 1928, handicapped individuals in India could not inherit property. Yet the abolishment of legal discrimination (Nagpal, 1983) has not changed social norms. In a 2007 World Bank survey in India, around half of the respondents believed that “disability was always or almost always a curse of God.” The survey also showed that people with disabilities attended around half of social and religious functions, and often found themselves discouraged from attending marriages. The behavior of clergy provides another indication of intolerance of disabled individuals: According to Punbit (2013), “extremist Hindu temples have started a drive to deny entry to disabled people.”

In his defense of belief in the karmic origin of disabilities, professor of comparative religion Arvind Sharma relied upon what Lawrence Kohlberg characterized as the lowest level of moral reasoning (one typical of young children): that one’s behavior should be dictated by the need to avoid punishment (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1984). According to Sharma, a belief in karma “commends warm-hearted concern to minimize the [disabled] person’s problems, even though caused by his or her own actions in the past. Otherwise, according to that same law of karma, when we find ourselves similarly disadvantaged, we will ourselves be so treated, and will have deserved such treatment by our own callousness” (Sharma, 1999).

An identical account appears in Buddhism:

The blind of this world bear a heavy burden for past failure to tell the way clearly to travelers. Some people’s mouths are very misshapen. They blew out lamps on the Buddhas’ altars. To be deaf and mute is a dreary existence. Reward appropriate for scolding one’s parents. How do people get to be hunchbacks? They berated and laughed at those bowing to Buddhas” (Buddhist Text Translation Society, n.d.).

Having been exposed to such texts, many Buddhists have a negative attitude toward the disabled. According to one survey of Japanese Buddhists, “68% of people with disability say they have experienced discrimination,” and “the vast majority of people without disability feel that individuals who have a disability are treated like second-class citizens” (Stevens, 2013, p. 32). Sallie B. King reached a similar conclusion:

Popular understanding based on the idea of karma has provided a rationalization for people to turn their backs on the disabled…. This interpretation of karma has been so common that modern reformers in countries like Japan bitterly blame Buddhism for much of the super-added suffering of disabled people beyond the physical suffering directly caused by their disabilities—their rejection by society, their treatment as pariahs, and the lack of interest in helping them. (2009, p. 163)

Contemporary Buddhists feel embarrassed by the cruelty of the karmic doctrine and the subsequent ill-treatment of the disabled. Richard Louis Bruno, a disabled Buddhist psychotherapist, solved this dilemma by doing two quite different things. First, he disassociated himself from the basic concept of “karmic punishment” by writing that some Buddhists (unlike himself) “believe in reincarnation and say that what happens to you in this life results from the circling back of your own actions from previous lives” (Bruno, n.d.). Second, he collected quotes from a few disabled persons, some of whom share his opinion:

“I believe my accident (and its consequences) is a result of something I’d done (or didn’t do), or because of something I didn’t handle properly, in a past life. I now get another chance to ‘do it right.'” (Bruno, n.d.)

“It is really unproductive to think about past lives…. We have more than enough to handle dealing with this one.” (Bruno, n.d.)

“When we accept that everything animate and inanimate is ‘already broken,’ a physical disability—even a terminal illness—loses its abnormality. Actually, anything that is not broken, not ‘disabled,’ is really abnormal.” (Bruno, n.d.)

Khun Kampol Thongbunnum expressed an attitude similar to these in a short poem:

Most people
Live in suffering
Without knowing
Only when happiness
Gradually fades away
That suffering
Shows its face
Then and there
Not perceiving suffering
One consequently fails
To find the way out
And to get rid of suffering
Once and for all.
(Thongbunnum, 2010)

I empathize with the pain and desperation of the disabled, and I applaud their use of a wide variety of psychological defense mechanisms to make their lives easier. The disturbing aspect of these statements concerns not the disabled, but the able-bodied, who learn to blame the victims for their plight and to feel not only physically but morally superior to them.

Christian attitudes toward the disabled not only receive scriptural justification from the verses quoted from the Hebrew Bible above, but from Matthew 9:2, 7 (also in Mark and Luke), where Jesus heals a paralyzed man by forgiving his sins: “Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’… Then the man got up and went home.” Another fable casts doubt over a simple “sin leads to disability” formula, for in John 9:1-3 we read: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.'” Two important points about Jewish and Christian attitudes toward disability are exemplified here. First, popular belief among first-century Jews parallels that found in the karmic views of the far-Eastern religions described above. Second, Christianity accepts that God aggrandizes himself at the expense of mortals.

Several later sources that are revered by Christians reinforce the view that God punishes humans with disabilities. Canon 22 of the Lateran Council (an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church) of 1215 avowed:

Since bodily infirmity is sometimes caused by sin, the Lord saying to the sick man whom he had healed: ‘Go and sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee’ (John 5:14), we declare in the present decree and strictly command that when physicians of the body are called to the bedside of the sick, before all else they admonish them to call for the physician of souls, so that after spiritual health has been restored to them, the application of bodily medicine may be of greater benefit, for the cause being removed the effect will pass away. (Mar, 1996)

In The Order for the Visitation of the Sick (Mant, 1816), we find the following passages:

Are you persuaded that your sickness is sent unto you by Almighty God?

An altered wording conveys the same message in the currently used Book of Common Prayer:

Whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation.[3]

In 1958 the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church declared: “It is cruel and false to brand every sufferer as a sinner: much suffering and sickness is due to the sin either of other persons or of society in general” (McDonald, 2013).

A different twist involves the introduction of a new character, the Devil. This move discredits the above quoted declaration in Exodus 4:11 by subscribing to a dualistic cosmology. For instance, around 419 St. Augustine wrote that “many are born deformed, many diseased, many horrible and monstrous…. Yes, even baptized infants are at times subjected to attacks by demons, in addition to other evils of this life” (419/1957, p. 339). Martin Luther concurred:

I maintain that Satan produces all the maladies which afflict mankind, for he is the prince of death. St Peter speaks of Christ as healing all that are oppressed of the devil. He not only cured those who were possessed, but he restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, strength to the paralytic; therefore I think all grave infirmities are blows and strokes of the devil (Luther, 1566/1997, p. 275, #593).[4]

Walter Bachmann (1985) summed up the results of this long list of deprecations: “It is doubtful if the handicapped have ever, in any other cultural domain in human history, been more wronged and despised or treated with greater intolerance and inhumanity, than in Christendom” (p. 442).[5]

Apologists did not delay. An early apologetic attempt by the apostle Paul not only accepted, but invited and adulated, suffering: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). A website run by the Christian Apologetics Alliance uses simple logic to prove its point, ignoring the logical contradiction between the following syllogism and much of what appears above: “God values people. People with disabilities are people. Therefore, God values people with disabilities” (Schmoll, 2014).

Some formulae bear obvious similarity to the apologetics offered by other religions above: “The Christian understanding of human nature is that we are damaged, wounded and disabled by sin. That’s just the way things are” (McGrath, 2012, p. 170). (For the dangerous consequences of seeing ourselves as defenseless or worthless, see Moore & Kramer, 2000.) On a Christian Biblical Counsel website, June Hunt answered the question, “Are there Blessings from Afflictions?” as follows: “When blasted by the winds of adversity, the heart that is sheltered in the hands of God still produces a life that is full of meaning and purpose” (Hunt, n.d.) She also offered more detailed justifications, such as “Suffering softens your heart toward obeying God’s Word,” or “Suffering uncovers your heart’s weakness so that Christ is your strength” (n.d.).

David J. C. Judson defended the above cited stricture in Leviticus 21:17-20 (and confirmed in the Code of Canon Law—see Vatican, 1983): “I feel this is no reflection on the handicapped person, but rather a wonderful reminder of the holiness and whole-ness of God” (Judson, 1975, p. 778).

At first glance Islam’s approach to the disabled appears benign. For example, on the Why Islam? website Saulat Pervez describes two cases where the prophet Muhammad behaved decently toward disabled persons, adding that “These examples are important because they show that even though the Prophet, pbuh, was sensitive to their particular circumstances, he did not consider these to be things which should stand in their way of leading normal lives” (Pervez, 2014). But a closer look reveals a different attitude, one that reinforces an association between physical disabilities and disbelief in the dogma. Such a mindset is more than sufficient to provide scriptural justification for those who choose to disparage the disabled:

“Those who reject our Signs are deaf and dumb, – in the midst of darkness profound: whom Allah willeth, He leaveth to wander: whom He willeth, He placeth on the way that is straight” (Koran 6:39).

“But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment” (Koran 20:124).

“Such are the men whom Allah has cursed for He has made them deaf and blinded their sight” (Koran 47:23).

While these verses may well have used deafness and blindness symbolically, they nonetheless ridicule those who suffer these adversities. The results speak for themselves: “Outside the Circle,” a report by child rights organization Plan International and the University of Toronto, describes

the horrific scale of discrimination and abuse faced by children with disabilities in West Africa [which is 70% Islamic]. This includes shocking reports of infanticide and trading in body parts of children with disabilities…. [C]hildren with disabilities are subject to profound levels of poverty, exclusion and discrimination in a region marked by deprivation and harmful practices rooted in traditional beliefs (Kumar, 2013).

Amar Alam notes the “unprecedented levels of prejudice and discrimination” mentally disabled individuals suffer at the hand of Muslims, attributing this attitude to the “prevalent belief among Muslims … that intellectual disabilities are caused by mental illness, possession by Jinns, supernatural phenomena and punishment for previous sins” (Alam, 2014). Similarly, Ayse Ciftci, Nev Jones, and Patrick W. Corrigan (2012) surveyed the literature on the stigma of mental health in Muslim communities and found that in addition to discrimination and ostracism, mentally disabled Muslims also suffer from lack of professional treatment due to their families’ unwillingness to report their condition.

Muslim apologists differ little from the apologists of other religions when it comes to defending contemptuous attitudes toward the disabled. Shaykh Abd al-Rahmaan al-Barraak, a Saudi scholar who recently issued a fatwa sanctioning the killing of advocates of gender mixing at work and in education, wrote an essay on why Allah created mental disabled people, a question that he answers as follows: “His perfect wisdom decrees that He creates opposites…. He created His slaves with differences in their bodies and minds, and in their strengths. He has made some rich and some poor, some healthy and some sickly, some wise and some foolish. By His wisdom, He tests them, and He tests some by means of others, to show who will be grateful and who will be ungrateful” (al-Barraak, n.d.).

Scott Thompson takes a different line: “If a person suffers from a physical handicap or disability, he has some special talent to compensate for it, whether he is aware of that talent or not. For this reason, disabilities are regarded as tests from God, designed to allow the disabled person to show his character and his own unique gifts” (Thompson, n.d.).[6] Wasif Islam offers a similar justification: “[B]eing disabled is a test from Allah in this life, and therefore can be a blessing in disguise. Every disabled person should be patient and live up to this challenge. Allah promised those who observe patience a great reward in the Hereafter” (Islam, 2009).

And if none of these justifications work, one can always fall back on this old chestnut from a fatwa issued by al-Barraak:

People are incapable of comprehending Allaah’s wisdom. He cannot be questioned as to what He does, while they will be questioned. Glorified and exalted be He. Whatever you understand of His wisdom, believe in it, and whatever you cannot understand, say, ‘Allaah knows best and is most wise, and we know nothing except that which You have taught us, and He is the All-Knowing, Most Wise.’ (al-Barraak, n.d.)

I have shown that the followers of the above-mentioned religions can find in their sacred texts ample grounds for looking down upon the disabled, for excluding them both socially and physically, and for endorsing the pernicious idea of blaming the victim. In an edited volume dealing with the three monotheistic religions’ approach to disability, Darla Schumm and Michael J. Stoltzfus reached a similar conclusion:

While religious attitudes and responses to disability are quite diverse, it is not uncommon for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspectives to mimic the medical model by connecting disabling bodily conditions with individual spiritual deficiency. There is a persistent tendency to associate disability with individual sin. Well-meaning people from multiple religious traditions often struggle to offer religious explanations and religious solutions to the “problem” (Schumm & Stoltzfus, 2011, p. xiv).

Religions tend to have a highly stratified social structure, where the bottom level consists of rank-and-file believers. But this level also has their own punching bag: What better target than the weak, the different, the minority, and the disabled. A significant source in shaping one’s self-esteem is comparing oneself to others; the pervasive phenomenon of social comparison provides one with a perception of relative standing. Evaluating oneself by finding faults in others offers a fool-proof method for gaining some sense of self-esteem: Just find someone who is worth less than you, and if you can’t find one, create one! This is the mechanism behind belittling: Gaining illusory ascendance by disparaging others, saying or implying that they are unimportant, ineffective, or unsuccessful (Kramer-Moore & Moore, 2012, p. 127). al-Barraak makes this crystal clear: “When the sound believer sees disabled people, he recognizes the blessing that Allaah has bestowed upon him, so he gives thanks for His blessing, and He asks Him for good health” (al-Barraak, n.d.)


[1] See also Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Contemporary Orthodox Judaism has continued this practice.

[2] See also Deuteronomy 28:15; compare with the belief, considered heretical in Jewish thought, in “two supreme powers,” as illustrated by anecdotes about the first-century Jewish sage Elisha ben Abuyah in the Hagigah tractate of the Babylonian Talmud.

[3] Mormon doctrine agrees and goes a step further; see Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation 1:61: “There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient; more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less” (Smith & McConkie, 1954).

[4] See also Table Talk #360: “in all grave illnesses the devil is present as the author and cause.”

[5] See also Ruthven (2009): “Oral Roberts’ Jesus did not approve of fat people and overweight students were required to ‘slim for Him.’ Disabled people were kept off the campus until the American Civil Liberties Union brought a successful anti-discrimination suit.”

Though not a Christian religion, I must mention Scientology and Ron Hubbard’s view on the physically or mentally disabled: “There are only two answers for the handling of people from 2.0 down on the tone scale, neither one of which has anything to do with reasoning with them or listening to their justification of their acts. The first is to raise them on the tone scale by un-enturbulating some of their theta by any one of the three valid processes. The other is to dispose of them quietly and without sorrow” (Jacobsen, 2010).

[6] This opinion originates in Koran 67:2: “He who created death and life to test you as to which of you is best in deed.”


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