by David Morstad
Accounts of what happens to disabilities in heaven are abundant in contemporary folklore and in our collective imagination. Actual scripture, however, is a little thin on specifics. Still, the discussion is significant, not for what it reveals about the hereafter, but for what it reveals about the attitudes of non-disabled people in the here and now. The perspectives of some wheelchair users may be surprising to able-bodied people of faith.
In a 2005 public radio interview, writer Ben Mattlin observed, “My disability is part of who I am. … Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I’m not buying it. For me, …it’s not a place where I’ll be able to walk, it’s a place where it doesn’t matter if you can’t.”
At a Summer Institute on Theology and Disability a few years ago, one wheelchair-using participant pointed to these verses in the first chapter of Ezekiel:
“As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. … Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
“There you have it,” she added, “according to the Bible, the company of heaven has wheels.”
Farfetched? Maybe not. How often have we heard the phrase, “She is confined to a wheelchair?” Or, “He is wheelchair-bound.” Among us typically-abled, a common perception of a wheelchair is that of limitation or restraint. For many who have spent their lives in them, though, this is simply not the case. In fact, “the wheels” are both the symbol and the instrument of mobility, freedom and independence.
The point here is not to quibble about the characteristics of heaven and those to be found there. Definitive answers are unlikely in this life. Rather, it is about the attitudes that non-disabled people of faith bring into relationships now. Which is easier to pray? “God, take away that person’s disability.”? Or, “God grant me patience when I deal with people who have different abilities, grant me acceptance of everyone, even those whose appearance disturbs me, grant me a voice to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and grant me the wisdom to learn from those who have so much to teach me?