Beyond inspiration
Professor, student examine disability in Christian context

Christopher Smit, a professor of communication arts and sciences, and Rosemarie van der Jagt, a senior majoring in speech pathology, spent the summer of 2005 fashioning a new lens on disability; their work and the book that comes out of it, funded by a Calvin Alumni Association grant, will allow Christians a fresh vision of people with disabilities.

Chris Smit“There’s been an entire 20 to 30 years of activism that we’ve been ignoring in the church — an entire civil rights movement garnering equality for physical and mental differences,” Smit said. “So what I’m trying to do in this book is connect disabled and nondisabled Christians. We’re trying to bridge that distance.”

To provide the research foundation for the book, No More Fallen: A New Philosophy of Christianity and Disability, Smit and van der Jagt looked further back than a mere 20 to 30 years. The team began its study of Christian attitudes toward people with disabilities with a study of scripture. “We looked a lot at Jesus’ words and Jesus’ way of treating disability,” van der Jagt said. “We used the Bible to find a foundation for why the church believes and teaches the things that it does.”

The study focus then shifted to Christian literature dealing with disability, and there they found some disquieting ideas at work. “Often what happens in churches is people with disabilities are helped, but they aren’t allowed to help. They have nothing to offer,” Smit said. “Or they serve by just existing as an inspiration to us.”

Both views are problematic, he said. “Either way, you’re saying, ‘You’re not like us.’” As an antidote to these errors, Smit and van der Jagt considered the idea of “reciprocity”: “We need to say, ‘You’re my brother. You’re my sister, and I don’t care about your body. I care about you and I want to have community with you.’”

Rosemarie van der JagtOne of the pluses of working on the project was partnering with a student who plans to work with people with disabilities, Smit said of van der Jagt, who plans a career in speech pathology: “There’s a certain amount of energy that students bring to us academics who have been at this for years. It’s just great watching these people who have never done research learn how to do it.”

Van der Jagt is writing an essay on her research with Smit, which she hopes to publish in the spring. The lessons she learned, van der Jagt said, gave her new insight on her chosen field: “I’m going to be working with people with disabilities all the time, whether it’s a little disability — like a speech impediment — or a stroke. I think this taught me to remember when I’m doing therapy that, yes, I’m the one doing therapy, but I can gain so much from it, too. I think that was an important thing to realize.”