Wang Yea-Hui, who has suffered from polio from her first year, considers various definitions of disability and contrasts traditional Chinese responses with Christian teaching. She desires that people will affirm that every child is valuable, recognize that all life has dignity, and honor everyone’s potential.

Yea-Hui Wang (王雅惠) graduated with a BA in history from National Cheng Gong University, Taiwan. She then earned a MA in Special Education from Azusa Pacific University, focusing on learning difficulties. She has also received an MDiv and DMin from Fuller Theological Seminary. She has worked with the Bread of Life Church in Los Angeles and served with OMF in Taiwan from 2012 to 2016.

yeh-hui-wang
Yea-Hui Wang

Viewing Disabilities from the Perspectives of Chinese Culture and Christian Belief[1]

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 no. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 13-16

If my life was a musical instrument, God has shown himself to be such an outstanding musician that no matter how broken the instrument might be, he is able to play it in a way that moves the heart strings of those who hear.

When any young couple awaits the arrival of their first child, their hearts are filled with boundless hopes and aspirations. However, when they discover that their child has no arms and her left leg is only half as long as her right one, their expectations are dashed. Nevertheless, one couple who faced this reality raised their child with such incomparable love and wisdom that Lena Maria Kingvall—who recorded her story in Footnotes: A Life without Limbs—learned to swim at three years of age and represented Sweden in international disabled competitions where she won multiple medals.[2] She later graduated with honors with a degree in modern music from The Royal College of Music in Stockholm and has since travelled to many countries to perform. Despite her disability, Lena Maria has not given any signs that she feels inferior, bitter, or wants to complain about her situation. To the contrary, she exudes self-esteem and confidence as she overcomes all kinds of obstacles and difficulties. As she says, “As one who has a disability, I have constantly experienced the reality that ‘difficulties bring strength.’ … What I lack has allowed me to experience God’s grace on countless occasions.”[3]

The true story of Lena Maria really changed the way I think about people with disabilities. The impression we get when we hear the word “disability” may be of street beggars in ragged clothes who cannot get around very well, or of a masseuse wearing dark glasses, or of someone with a low income, low education, and low IQ. But is it right only to consider people with disabilities as a group that cannot live independently and must rely on the charity and compassion of others in order to survive? Are they really, due to their physical or psychological disabilities, unable to live as dignified and independent a life as the average person? In order to delve deeper into this issue, I would like to begin by defining disability in order to show its place in traditional Chinese culture and Christian culture.

1. The definition of disability

According to the World Health Organization, “disability” can be understood on three different levels.[4] The first level refers to medically recognized physical and psychological injuries or conditions which are often referred to as impairments. The second level refers to activity limitation in which physical and/or psychological conditions prevent full engagement in what are considered normal daily activities. This may be termed a disability. The third level refers to participation restrictions in normal daily activities, emphasizing the way a person’s disability impacts their interaction with their physical or social environment. The above three levels are primarily classified according to the function of the external body or internal organs, but in fact disabilities seem to cover both mental and physical functions. In “Design Appeal for a Barrier-Free Building Environment,” Li Zhenglong wrote that “the so-called disabilities . . . in terms of nature, can be divided into two kinds, one refers to the mental barriers . . . The other refers to physical barriers.”[5] For this reason, if we overlook bodily defects as defined by medicine, being “disabled” includes both mental and physical disabilities.

From this, it can be seen that “disability” can either be defined narrowly in the medical sense or more broadly. The disability-related laws in Taiwan use broad definitions. According to the Special Education Law, which was updated in 1997, persons with disabilities are divided along physical and psychological lines. The third article of the law states: “What this law terms ‘physical and mental disorders’ refers to those with physical or psychological impairments who require special education and assistance with special educational services.” It further divides people with disabilities into twelve distinct categories.[6] In addition, the third section of the “Law on the Protection of Persons with Physical and Mental Disorders” contains a similar definition: “What this law terms persons with physical and mental disabilities refers to individuals whose participation in society and engagement in productive activities are restricted or made impossible.” It then divides people with disabilities into fourteen categories.[7] To sum it up, scholars, experts, and disability-related laws consider people with disabilities not only from a medical point of view, but also from a wider physiological and psychological perspective. This paper similarly views “disability” in the sense of this broader definition.

2. Traditional Chinese cultural attitudes towards disabilities

In America, people with physical and mental disabilities began to awaken as early as the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement. They are now considered individuals who have equal status and rights with those who are not physically or otherwise impaired. Many disability-related laws have been enacted and implemented in the United States, such as the Building Barriers Act (1968), the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, and other similar laws. The emphasis of these bills has shifted from the negative “protection” and “support” for people with physical and mental disabilities to an emphasis on actively safeguarding opportunities and rights for persons with disabilities in employment, education, etc. By contrast, Taiwan did not enact the Disability Benefits Act (殘障福利法) and the Special Education Act (特殊教育法) until 1980 and 1984 respectively. Such laws as the amended Disability Benefits Act of 1990 and the 1997 Disability Protection Act (身心障礙者保護法) were passed about two decades later than similar statutes in the United States. As a result of institutional factors—such as the lack of manpower for disability welfare work, the fragmentation of government departments, the lack of clarity in the division of powers and responsibilities, and inadequate attention by local government authorities—some laws have not been fully implemented.

The failure of Chinese society to value the rights and needs of people with disabilities and consequent failure to try to understand them is closely related to certain aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Traditionally, Chinese believed that the actions of ancestors affected the fate of future generations. If a child was born with a disability, people would often blame it on an ancestor’s lack of virtue, declare that the feng shui of ancestral graves was not right, or surmise that an ancestor caused it to serve as a warning. This way of thinking often loaded the parents with such a great sense of guilt that they felt they had totally lost face and shamed the family to the extent that they were unable to seek help from the outside world. Instead, they hid the child at home, not willing to let others know that an abnormal child lived in the house. This superstition affects the child’s self-image so that he lives under a shadow of inferiority and self-pity. Even more serious is the impact it has on the child’s relationships, as well as marriage and education possibilities. After gaining a basic education, some boys with disabilities are sent to work in factories or take up an apprenticeship, while girls learn skills like tailoring or embroidery. Only a few fortunate ones are able to complete higher education. But even these may face a wide range of difficulties and discrimination as they seek employment since there is no guarantee that they can find a job and they may not even be able to obtain a fair chance of getting one. As a result, people with disabilities often need to exert twice the effort of others in order to earn a living.

In her book One of the Lucky Ones, Lucy Ching (程文輝) relates the following story:

Our neighbor … told my mother, “It’s unlucky for you to have a blind daughter. I think it’s probably because you or your husband, or your parents or ancestors, did something wrong that offended the gods. Otherwise you would not have a daughter like this.” My mother blamed my misfortune on my own bad luck… I know my parents love me and worry about my future, … However, they didn’t know that just giving me food and shelter is not enough. They didn’t realize that blind children, like ordinary children, should be educated.[8]

Ching’s response to the social environment of the time demonstrates that their wrong understanding of people with disabilities esulted in an enormous amount of pressure being placed upon them and their families. People with disabilities simply exhibit some kind of problem with their physical or psychological functions that can usually be improved by education and medical care. It is unfortunate that traditional culture has produced negative and superstitious ideas regarding disabled people that have cut them off from education and the general public. The greatest injustice disabled people face is that before they have a chance to prove their abilities, they are misunderstood and shut out. It’s not that society intends to harm them, it’s just that ignorance causes people to fear the disabled.

Another issue that impacts people with disabilities is the Chinese education system. Chinese education has long aimed to benefit normal, intelligent children. Any child who is unable to keep up with the system due to some special needs will quickly be abandoned. Since traditional Chinese ideals elevate academic performance, the general public—including parents—have developed negative ideas about the disabled and equate disability with low ability. Similarly, those who formulate and execute educational policies have given little thought to changing the system to address the needs of the disabled.

3. Christian culture

A basic tenet of Christianity states that “everyone is created in the image of God.” From this perspective, everyone—regardless of race, color, origin, disability, or whatever—is equal and of value before God. These ideas can be found in both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, in the Old Testament, Isaiah 43:3–4 says: “For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior….  you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…” Yahweh—who created the heavens and the earth and is the true God of the universe—sees everyone as precious and honored and he loves them. For this reason, no one should be ignored or despised. In Psalm 139:14–16, we see that every person is fearfully and wonderfully made, the result of God’s amazing creation. Before our bodies were formed, God had seen us, known us, and written of us in his book. Since everyone is wonderfully created by God, even our weaknesses or defects can be said to be good—wonderful!—and worthy of our respect. Who has the right to say that what God identifies as good creation demonstrates deficient workmanship?

Jesus’ teachings frequently emphasized that everyone is of great importance to God.  John 3:16, which is familiar to everyone, says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loves everyone in the world without conditions. Just because a person is disabled doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love him or will not save him. Neither will God love someone more just because he is intelligent or beautiful. The term “whoever” here includes all people, including the disabled. Similarly, when Jesus was on the earth, he traveled through many towns and villages to find people who were lost (Matt 18:11; Luke 19:10). As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:12–13). He also said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt 10:29–30). It is those who have flaws and are weak who most need the grace and salvation that Jesus gives. Similarly, the Apostle Paul said: “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor” (1 Cor 12:22–24). The reality is that the more a person is disabled, the more they can demonstrate God’s love (Luke 7:41–43).

Healing of the Blind Man by Carl Bloch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

The most distinctively Christian perspective on disability is found in the healing of the blind man in John 9:1–3. When the disciples saw this man who was born blind, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” The question the disciples asked makes it clear that they held a preconceived notion that a person’s disability must be the result of sin. What they weren’t sure of was whether the man in question or his parents had sinned. Their question makes it fairly certain that the Jewish view of the disabled was similar to traditional Chinese thought that sees disability as a result of sin. Jesus’ answer turns this traditional concept on its head—a person’s disability may not be because of sin, but for the glory of God. There is therefore no need to feel that someone with a disability is inferior or that they should be blamed for their condition. To the contrary, we should respect the person who in this way brings glory to God.

Based on their Christian understanding that everything is created by God and deserves respect, many missionaries from Europe and the United States have given themselves and sacrificed lives of comfort to go to Africa, Central and South America, and even to remote islands in the Far East, such as Taiwan, to preach the gospel. Many of them have also introduced advanced medical technology and equipment. Not a few of these missionaries have made considerable contributions to helping care for the disabled and giving them an opportunity for education. Dr. Olav Bjorgaas (畢嘉士醫師) from Norway is a case in point. In 1954, Bjorgaas and his wife went to Taiwan not long after they got married. He first settled in Taipei, serving at the Lesheng Sanitorium (樂生療養院), which specialized in treating leprosy patients. In 1956, his church sent him to the Christian Clinic in Pingdong, the predecessor of the Pingdong Christian Hospital (屏東基督教醫院). He also set up a specialty dermatology clinic in Kaohsiung to treat leprosy patients and established a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis.

Dr. Olav Bjorgaas pictured on the cover of the Chinese translation of his biography (originally written in Norwegian) by Bjørn Jarle Sørheim-Queseth.

During the 1950s when Taiwan was hit by a polio epidemic, sanitoriums began to take in children with polio. Taiwan’s first home for children with polio was established in 1961. Due to his Christian faith, Dr. Bjorgaas valued the life of every young person and was fully committed to ensure that the worth of each child be affirmed, their dignity respected, and their full potential developed. To help the children with polio, he invited physiotherapists from the United States to provide physical therapy, and ordered the custom supports and iron shoes the children needed from the United States. Though no one at the time thought it was worth it, Bjorgaas expended great amounts of money, labor, and thought because he believed that helping a child who could only crawl to stand up on his own was a victory. And although no primary school at the time was willing to accept children with reduced mobility, Bjorgaas made countless trips until the door was finally opened for these children to attend school. Bjorgaas spent most of his life helping people with disabilities live independent and dignified lives, mainly because the source of his strength was God’s unconditional love for all. Besides Bjorgaas, many other missionaries have given themselves to serve people with disabilities in Taiwan, though, due to space constraints, I cannot recount their ministries one by one.

4. Conclusion

In recent years, with the rise of humanitarianism, the awakening of the self-awareness of disabled people and the call for their equality have become trends. Civil authorities in multiple countries who have followed this trend, have enacted laws to protect the rights and interests of people with disabilities. This is a welcome situation. Even so, there is no denying that the protection of the disabled in many places exists mainly at the level of laws and regulations, and that it has not really impacted the mindset of society and people. To deal with this issue adequately, we need to begin with the deep-rooted problems of Chinese culture. We need to completely eliminate the way traditional culture negates the value of the individual, focuses on the elite to the exclusion of the weak, avoids reality, fears anxiety, and approves utilitarian selfishness and other similar concepts. We need to replace these with the spirit of sacrificial devotion that comes through Jesus’ enabling, including the twin attributes of acceptance and selfless love. If this is done, work with people who are disabled can be raised from its current surface level to an elevated plain so that social consciousness and the thought life are impacted. As one with a disability, I want to give the authorities in many Chinese settings fairly high marks for their many efforts on behalf of people with disabilities and affirm their continued work in this direction. Even so, I have higher hopes that the general public develops a correct understanding of people with disabilities, accepts us as an integral part of society, and extends basic respect and dignity toward us. I also desire to see the spirit that moved Dr. Bjorgaas take root in the hearts and minds of all Chinese people so that we affirm the value of every child, respect the dignity of all life, and honor the potential of every living soul.

[1] This article is abridged and translated from one published in a Chinese Christian magazine.

[2] Lena Maria Klingvall, Footnotes: A Life without Limbs (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2001). Chinese version (used in this article) is 蓮娜瑪莉亞·克林佛, 用腳飛翔的女孩 (傳神愛網, 2001).

[3] Text translated from the Chinese version用腳飛翔的女孩114.

[4]https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/65990/WHO_HSC_ACE_99.2.pdf (accessed 23 October 2020).

[5] Li Zhenglong, “Design Appeal for a Barrier-Free Building Environment,” see 李政隆, “為無障礙建築環境設計呼籲,” 特殊教育季刊 25 (1987): 1–3.

[6] Article 3 of the Special Education Act (特殊教育法), as amended by the Legislative Council in Taiwan in 1997, divides persons with mental and physical disabilities into twelve categories: intellectually impaired, visually impaired, hearing impaired, speech impaired, limb impaired, physically disabled, severely emotionally disordered, learning disabled, multiple impairments, autistic, developmentally delayed, and otherwise significantly disabled.

[7] Article 3 of the Law on the Protection of Persons with Physical and Mental Disabilities (身心障礙者保護法), as amended by the Legislative Council in Taiwan on 18 April 1997, divides persons with mental and physical disabilities into fourteen categories: visually impaired, hearing impaired, balance impaired, hearing or speech impaired, limb impaired, mentally impaired, people whose vital organs have diminished abilities, people with facial injuries, people in a vegetative state, people with dementia, people with autism, people with chronic mental illness, and people with multiple disabilities, and people with other disabilities recognized by the central health authorities.

[8] Lucy Ching, One of the Lucky Ones (London: Souvenir, 1982). Text translated from the Chinese version: 程文輝, 伴我同行 (浸信會出版社, 1989), 16–18. Lucy Ching was born in Guangzhou in the 1930s and later settled in the United States. When she was six months old, she suffered from an eye disease and went blind after being given the wrong medicine.

The image is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. It is in the public domain in its country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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