Disabled Images: On Identity and Disability

December 1, 2016

Jada is a young lady who is on the autism spectrum. Nevertheless, her story is one of success over obstacles. She learned to talk. She began to understand empathy. She moved from special ed to mainstream classrooms. She developed musical gifts, became a popular student, and was elected to student council. Her unique brain chemistry equipped her to do specific jobs that proved too repetitious and detailed for others. Her passion for a job well done earned her both friends and respect in the working world. Jada was a success story, living on her own with minimal support.

In short, the world looks at disabled Jada and sees her potential. The world sees Jada as an image-bearer only because of what she can do. But as Christians, we can see how Jada might inherently bear God’s image, even despite her disability.

Tim was born prematurely to a mom who didn’t take care of herself. Drug-related brain damage muted the signals that his brain sent to his muscles. Life in a wheelchair was inevitable. Tim never developed the ability to speak with his mouth, and he could not functionally use a communication device. He is unable to eat on his own, get changed, put on shoes, or go to the bathroom. He cannot read, and he does not easily convey any kind of response or preference. He is completely dependent on others. He is defined, particularly by strangers, by the overwhelming number of things that he cannot do.

The world looks at Tim and sees no potential to contribute, to purchase and to consume, to communicate, or to build up. It is hard to see God’s goodness reflected in this broken life.

So, of Jada and Tim, which identity best reflects God’s image?

The Identity Lies That Have Been Shaped by a Warped Worldview

As someone born with a developmental disability, questions like this one have perplexed me for years. Was I worth anything when people only saw me for my disability? Did I need to accomplish things and “overcome” my disability in order to be worthwhile? How did I compare to others? How could I reflect God’s image when I couldn’t even talk clearly?

In her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift, Amy Julia Becker recounts comparing her daughter, Penny (born with Down syndrome), with other children.

“As I lay in bed, I realized that the question I had been asking all day long was ‘What can she do?’ When I asked it of Penny in comparison to the other kids, she came up short every time. But I finally thought to ask, ‘Who is she?’ and I started to remember all the traits that were unique to her–the slobbery kisses, the eyes that followed me around a room, the laughter and the sweetness.”1

The latter question changes our perspective when we again look at Jada and Tim. Jada may be able to do many things, to the degree that we can measure her against our “normal” lives and see that she compares quite favorably. But when we ask who she is, we expand the comparison. Not only do the limits of “What can she do?” no longer matter, but Tim now enters the equation as well, and he does not seem so far removed from bearing God’s image.

Let us take the image-bearing idea further still.

Dr. Jill Harshaw offered a presentation at the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability in May of 2015. In her speech, Dr. Harshaw pointed out the lengths to which our Creator God has gone to make His Person accessible to us, His creations. In short, God created language and gave us words to describe Him and His glory. He gave us bodies and anthropomorphized His spiritual being so that we might relate to Him physically. He then took the extraordinary step of the Incarnation, becoming one of us in the Person of the Son. And these are just a few steps that the Almighty has taken so that His created beings, made in His image, might be able to understand and access Him.

When our Lord would go to such a degree to help His created sons and daughters understand Him, how can we even begin to measure the distance between neuro-typical persons (people whose brains work typically) and Jada or Tim? Are we not all His created sons and daughters?

In fact, the capacity to bear God’s image has nothing to do with what we can do—with accomplishment. Instead, throughout His redemptive story, God clearly creates accommodations for all His image-bearers, in order to make Himself accessible.

It is Not Dependent on Anything About Us

In other words, we need not show human capacity–mentally, physically, emotionally, or in other human terms—in order to bear God’s image.

So, do we then bear God’s image, as we might conclude from Becker’s statement, from what makes us unique? Do we reflect our Creator by the things that make us different?

Western Christian subculture, and the rest of the western world, has traditionally measured people according to what they can do. More and more, we define people by how different they are and how uniquely they express their individuality. But our identity is not in what we own, what we do or what we can accomplish, or in what others think of us. Neither is our identity found in what makes us unique, or in how we choose to identify ourselves. We are identified by bearing the image of God through the unique way in which He has crafted and called us to reflect His righteousness and holiness.

I am Disabled as Much by You as by My Disability

For people with disabilities, all this is true, but it also must be emphasized to those who do not have disabilities. One’s capacity for image-bearing is no more disabled than is society’s view of one who is disabled. The inability to see God’s image reflected in a disabled person’s life says more about a limited perception of God’s grace than it does about the disability.

In short, we are all God’s masterpieces, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:10), and there is no asterisk on that statement. Paul does not add “unless you have disabilities” to his letter—it is written to the whole church and to each of its members.

Therefore, it is not about my ability to communicate, or my savings account, or temperament, or looks, or clothes, or car, or position, or power, or influence, or good name. It is also not about my struggles, my disability, my unique outlook on life, my race, my gender, my orientation, or anything else that I might choose as the basis for my identity.

The Truth about Identity

Our image-bearing is not a decision, and it is not dependent upon our circumstances. It is not fluid, or self-determined, or actualized, and the value of our persons does not shift over time, by the whims of others or by the intent of ourselves.

Jada does not simply reflect God’s image when she communicates, and Tim does not fail to reflect God’s image when someone helps him bathe. We all reflect the image of our Creator, and we are all called to reflect that image as we put off the old self, which is always and constantly corrupted by deceitful desires and ideas that the world wants us to accept. We are instead called to be made new in our attitudes, toward our world, toward each other, and toward our God above all, to put on the new self which means to “be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24)

Jada, Tim, and I—we are image-bearers of God. And we need you to put on the new self, with its new attitudes, so that you can see God’s image in us, not because of who we are or what we can do, but because we are His masterpieces, like you, and we are all called—together—to true righteousness and holiness.

About the Author
  • Dan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to pursue their highest God-given potential. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. In 2009, he developed “The 5 Stages: Changing Attitudes” as a resource developed at Elim Christian Services. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess and change their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois, where Dan serves as a member of the council and the Disability Concerns team, and as a helper in the Friendship class.

  1. Becker, Amy Julia, A Good and Perfect Gift, 185 

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  1. What you write is very true and we need to be reminded of that often. I have a niece who you helped educate and several others in the family have what our society calls disabilities. My husband who was brilliant is now disabled. This situation requires much prayer by me but Charlie accepts what has happened very easily. I see God’s hand in this.