A Dharma Note

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Does the dharma gem, "Participate with joy in the suffering of the world," offer a touchstone for theological reflection on the "New Paradigm" of disability with its dual emphasis - "function" and "participation?" Utne Reader offers a teaser reflection on the phrase from an eco-spirituality perspective but with no reference to disability.

Any reference to "suffering," in the context of disability, reflexively invokes arguments against the "medical model" and stifles dialogue on the topic. To pursue this reflection productively, the term "suffering" must be informed by the defintion of "dukkha" or borrow from concepts such as the Pauline understanding of "participatory suffering."
This excerpt from the Center for Accessible Society overview article on disability definitions illustrates the critique of the medical model:

"Historically, as author Hugh Gallagher notes, people with disabilities have been viewed as sick people who somehow never get better. They are medical failures. Disability is seen as a fate worse than death. Persons with disabilities have been hidden away in attics or institutions of confinement, or, in the worst case, killed. There is almost a primal fear of becoming disabled in this and other cultures, the fear of becoming part of the "other," the fear of loss, the fear of losing power, control and function.

This fear, mostly never articulated, leads people to feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities. Non-disabled people find ways to pity those with disabilities, to treat them as "special," or as extraordinary "overcomers." Or even to somehow find ways to deny a disability exists.

In our society, people with disabilities are mostly on the margins. They are perceived as individuals with a problem, a "victim" who has "suffered" a "tragedy." Individuals with disabilities are considered objects of pity and charity, persons (barely) who cannot work or be expected to take a full role in society. They are a burden (often resented) to be carried by their families or on public welfare assistance...

But people with disabilities, for the most part, are not sick; they just happen to have a disability. Yet, at the end of the 20th Century, people with disabilities still are viewed predominantly through medical model lenses; they are considered "patients."

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