A few years ago, I had a student with Cerebral Palsy. He was one of those students that I connected with outside of the regular classroom. One day while we were talking about theological matters at our favorite local coffee shop, he told me that he’d be “really pissed off” if he didn’t have CP in heaven. The reason he gave for this claim was that his disability is part of his identity.
I confess that his claim struck me as odd at the time. Like many individuals, I had the thought “but why wouldn’t you want to not be disabled if that’s possible?” But over the past year and a half as I’ve begun immersing myself in various disability literatures, I’ve come to learn that my student’s thought is common among many people who have disabilities. Some members of the Deaf community think that they’ll be deaf and speak in sign language in the eschaton, just as others expect to speak in their own linguistic communities. (Just as I would like to be able to speak and understand Farsi in heaven, should I get there, I hope that I’ll be able to communicate in ASL.) And theologian Amos Young, in his well-known Theology and Down Syndrome, argues that his brother will still have Trisomy 21 in the eschaton.
Why might it be important to take seriously this line of thought? I think because of the substantial history of harms that have been done against those with disabilities, both in general but also more specifically by denying their voice when they speak of their own experiences. In her wonderful The Minority Body, Elizabeth Barnes talks about the tendency to downplay such testimony from those with disabilities as a kind of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice. According to Miranda Fricker, testimonial injustice “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to dive a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word”(Epistemic Injustice, p. 1). (As an illustration of some of the difficulties facing individuals with disabilities and the denial of their voice, I highly recommend people read Harriet McBride Johnson’s “Unspeakable Conversations.”).
Now, I don’t think that the need to take such testimony seriously means that it’s always veridical. (Neither does Barnes.) But it should make us pause and think before speaking. In what follows, I especially encourage those with disabilities to weigh in. And I encourage those of us that don’t have disabilities to take their reports seriously.
So what of the question, “will people have their disabilities in the eschaton?” Obviously, on one sense of the term ‘identity’, if a disability is part of a person’s identity then they will. Here I’m thinking of specifically numeric identity. But I also think that there are compelling reasons to think that not all disabilities are part of a person’s identity in this sense. (I’m inclined toward the view that there’s not a single thing that is disability, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I think that not all disabilities are similar in the relevant respect.) Disabilities that are acquired later in life—e.g., dementia or disabilities which result from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—aren’t essential to a person’s numeric identity. If a person exists prior to having a disability, then it is possible for that person to exist without that disability. And if Christianity is true, it’s also possible for those born with a disability to no longer have it. The blind are given sight; the lame walk.
But this doesn’t mean that all disabilities are like that. It may be that chromosomal abnormalities (e.g., Trisomies 18 and 21, 2p15-16.1 Microdeletion Syndrome) as well as other kinds of disabilities are not separable from one’s numeric identity in this sense. I confess I don’t know what to think about these kinds of cases. But I think we have some (though certainly defeasible) reasons for thinking that these disabilities will be present in the eschaton because they are tied to a person’s numeric identity.
There’s another—a weaker—sense of identity where I think it makes sense to say that disabilities are part of a person’s identity, and that’s the “self-understanding and narrative” sense of the term. This is, I think, what many people mean when they say that being disabled is part of their identity. It is, for instance, what I think is present in the following passage from Simi Linton:
While retaining the word disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is that disability is best understood as a marker of identity. As such, it has been used to build a coalition of people with significant impairments, people with behavioral or anatomical characteristics marked as deviant, and people who have or are suspected of having targets of discrimination…. When disability is redefined as a social/political category, people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. (Claiming Disability, 12)
A similar approach to one’s identity as disabled can also be found in Harilyn Rousso’s Don’t Call Me Inspirational. For many people with disabilities, their disability has so shaped their self-understanding that they cannot understand what it would be like for them not to have those disabilities (even if it is metaphysically possible for them to exist without those disabilities).
There are other aspects of one’s identity, so construed, that might also be understood in a similar way. Being a parent isn’t part of my numeric identity (since I was still me prior to being a parent), but it is a significant part of my own self-understanding and who I’ve become. And this is also true more specifically of being a parent of a disabled child. Even if I am no longer a parent at some point in the future (that thought is horrific to me!) or still a parent but not of a child with disabilities, the ways that those experiences have shaped my life are, I think, marks that I shall always bear in the future. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to know what these marks will be like prior to having them. Such marks are, in Laurie Paul’s term, transformative experiences.
Answers to the question depend on lots of philosophical questions (e.g., What is the nature of disability? What is the correct account of human nature? What kinds of goods and diversity will be realized in the heavenly kingdom? What experiences are compatible with the beatific vision?). It is my hope that in the future there will be more interaction between philosophy of religion and disability studies.
 I’d like to Michelle Panchuck, Scott Williams, and Hilary Yancey for discussions on these issues.