Spirituality may support women with disabilities in attaining optimal health and well-being.
Spirituality is a quality that goes beyond involvement in a religious organization. It is a more basic construct. The highest level of our development is affected by our ability to appreciate the sacred in life and to find a sense of meaning and purpose. Spirituality invites women with disabilities to live fully and in the present.
Research suggests that people, and in particular persons with disability, depend on spirituality and religion as an important, if not primary, method of coping with physical health problems and life stress. Most research, however, has addressed one's involvement in religion rather than spirituality.
Although research about spirituality in the context of disability is sparse, many thoughtful writers have considered religion and spirituality to be crucial factors in adjustment to disability. They write that acceptance of limitations by relying only on the belief that "this is God's will" or that one has been abandoned by God may limit one's ability to fully benefit from rehabilitation. They advocate against using disability as an opportunity to preach, saying that it could do more harm than good. Instead, they advocate for the ministry of presence.
Being affiliated with a specific religion can sometimes help women with disabilities find comfort in times of isolation and despair. One interview study of women with physical disabilities who were in recovery from past experiences with violence revealed that spirituality helped them in their recovery process.
While little research has been conducted on the influence of organized religion in the context of disability, studies on the general population have been positive.
- For example, a 28-year follow-up of thousands of people aged 18-65 years found that the individuals who attended at least weekly religious services had lower rates of depression, smoking, and alcohol use; they also tended to have greater social support.
- Frequent attendees were more likely to have engaged in other healthy behaviors, including physical exercise.
- The effect on survival was good after other factors were taken into consideration - their risk of death was reduced by 34 percent.
- Religion is often used for help with coping with difficult life circumstances, such as declining physical health resources.
Voices of Women on Spirituality
"It distresses me that the field of rehabilitation has so completely ignored the most essential aspect of my being--my spirituality...while I chose to regard my disability as characterizing me rather than defining me, I must admit that it has caused me numerous emotional and spiritual crises."
The spirituality of women with disabilities has been discussed by a woman with a disability who is a priest and writes:
Unlike men with disabilities, women with disabilities experience double and triple oppression by negative attitudes and stereotypes. Moreover, they are economically disadvantaged.
She asks how women with disabilities can be "normal" and understand wholeness and healing when people who claim to be religious talk about the importance of having more faith in order to be healed (i.e., without disability). When disability is integrated as another dimension of living, spiritual growth can take place. Integrating experiences of disability allows a woman with a disability to recognize that suffering and hurtful experiences are universal conditions.
Spirituality is a way for women with disabilities to fulfill their potential and discover the possibilities while learning to live with and integrate their disability-related limitations and yet expand their boundaries to experience the fullness of life. The spiritual journey invites women with disabilities to new growth and change, and finally to inner healing. Women with disabilities need to tell their stories, having them heard and received. Avoiding the past pain and suffering may leave women with disabilities lost in a spiritual desert.
Another autobiographical article by a woman with a disability about spirituality and disability states her thoughts on her experiences with the rehabilitation field, and offers the following:
1. If self-surrender is imposed on people at a time of traumatic change (onset of disability), it may result in a sense of helplessness rather than spiritual enrichment.
2. A spiritual foundation may help equip women with disabilities to handle challenges introduced by disability.
3. The spiritual side of us can be a motivating force in the physical, vocational, psychological and social domains of rehabilitation.
Another article summarizing findings on spirituality from several studies concluded:
1. Spirituality is an important tool used by women with disabilities to counteract overwhelming negative odds imposed by societal stereotypes and barriers against achieving lives of fulfillment.
2. Self in connection to others is an integral part of sense of self for all women, yet women with disabilities face extraordinary barriers to establishing positive, long-lasting relationships. How the societal and environmental factors that discourage connection to others impact the disabled woman's concept of self and her place in the world has been the subject of very little research. How women with disabilities see connection to others as a source of spiritual fulfillment has also not been the subject of investigation and merits attention.
3. Women with disabilities draw power from both the self on the mundane plane, and the self on the spiritual plane to create lives of active participation and fulfillment.
Measuring Your Spirituality
A variety of spirituality assessment instruments have been developed to measure spiritual health, wellness, and maturity. Most of these instruments are based on Judeo-Christian beliefs in God or a "Higher Power", and they may not include Eastern religions or many other perspectives. A review of the literature did not reveal that spirituality instruments had been used among women with disabilities.
Religion and Disability Program
Barriers related to architecture, communication, and attitudes that limit participation in worship activities are being addressed nationwide by the Religion and Disability Program of the National Organization on Disability.
"Each of us has abilities; each seeks fulfillment and wholeness. Each of us has disabilities; each knows isolation and despair ... Let the House of God be open to all."
The Defining Light of Vedanta: Personal Reflections on Spirituality and Disability
Read the abstract for more on the importance of spirituality in living with physical disability from a first-person perspective.