I’m Disabled, I’m Muslim, and I Am Not Your Burden
The first time I consciously stimmed was in a La Quinta in north Texas. Muslims were packed in rows in their ballroom, spilling out onto the sidewalks. I was sitting near dead center. My mother sat beside me, cooing over nearby children moving back and forth. Before I knew it, I was mimicking their movements–bouncing in place, and humming–just enough for me to feel, but not enough to be seen. In moments, we would rise as one, bend at the waist, kneel, do child’s pose (flat on the ground, arms stretched out in front of us ), and sing words in unison. I felt my body’s usual vibration soothe itself, become swishing, folding sensation across every nerve. Too soon, it was over, and a Jummah sermon began. “We open this day grateful for our health, wealth, and well being,” I heard the Imam say, “and we pray for the less fortunate. For those who cannot move-for those poor souls, the poor, the weary and the disabled.”
This was the first time of many that I felt myself shrivel in on myself. I didn’t have the words for it, yet, but I knew that when the Imam said to pray for the disabled, he meant for people like me. The reality of what the Imam said, what most Imams said of me and my people, was that we are to be pitied. When we weren’t praying during Ramadan, we were in a mosque where the prayer rooms were up a flight of stairs. Leaving the room full of heated, loud bodies is seen as shameful, regardless of the reason. I’ve never seen a sign language interpreter there a day in my life. This isn’t unusual. For so many of us disabled Muslims, we are used as props at the pulpits, not real people. We’re seen as a less than–we’re seen as something to fear. For a lot of us, that means that even if we are disabled, we refuse to identify as such in the Muslim community. Shame enables and reproduces shame. It moves like a virus, spiraling out of control with everyone it touches.
This shame means we don’t request accommodations. It also means that when we do have the audacity to ask for them, we’re brushed away as a one-off. Too special, they say, it’s too much to ask. We didn’t factor renovations, interpreters, breaks into our budget, our plans, our ideals, our faith, our Mosques. When going to my first prayer group in DC, I still recall going to a group with a promised elevator and, upon finding it out of service, being told there was nothing they could do, and that I couldn’t pray with them (now, or in the future, unless I was willing to find and budget for a new location myself). I didn’t get so much as an apology without weeks of haranguing them and threats of going public with the way they treated me.
People will not hesitate to use disability as a prop-as a way to shame people into service, rather than motivating them out of a desire to help our community grow together. Within Islam, community service and working to better the lives of our collective community is a core part of the way we deal with one another. During Ramadan, it isn’t unusual for people to donate more money to local causes, volunteer more, cook meals for one another when breaking fasts. These are not meant to be done out of guilt–they are meant to be done to make us closer and to help make life easier for more people in our community and our broader world. Shame moves bodies, but it doesn’t move hearts. Disabled Muslims are often forced into being recipients alone of this culture, told that it is our place to feel better thanks to the help of other people, that we cannot be active agents in improving the world.
To be a disabled Muslim is to be thrown into the role of passive agent during Ramadan: to be pitied, referenced constantly to non-disabled people as a reminder to be grateful that you’re not one of ‘them.’ We aren’t referenced, even as a passing note, as people worthy of being reassured, or of our needs being met outside of Ramadan by the larger community. We can do better. We must do better, for the sake of the Muslim community as a whole and our disabled Muslim compatriots.
Inspiration porn of Muslims overcoming our disability is a tool of the same shame. “These poor, poor souls can do things,” our culture says, “So why can’t you, a fortunate soul, do things?” It comes from the same place: disabled people as objects of pity that serve only to motivate non-disabled Muslims, overcoming odds without ever insinuating who put them there in the first place. As a result, people see me as an idea rather than a person. When I talk about being excluded, I’ve been told that my ability to enter the mosque is something to be “debated.” This is profoundly dehumanizing, and it leaves me feeling as though my contributions to Islamic culture and scholarship are utterly meaningless. It’s sad to think about the potential contributions of disabled Muslims like me to our communities when we are objectified and turned away.
Non-disabled people need to observe their own relationships with disability history and disability culture, including community organizations and communities of faith. Mosques and Imams are not an exception. We have rich and fulfilling lives and we have rights that were fought for and earned in blood. Mosques and religious leaders can be more inclusive of disabled Muslims by rejecting the idea that we are an add-on rather than an essential part of our spaces. Start from the end. Figure out what the goals are of a given space and activity, and think of all the ways people can enter that space and participate. How do you make your sermon accessible to blind folks? What about hard of hearing people? People on walkers, wheelchairs, canes? What about people with sensory issues? Think about the organization and structure of your activities. How are you making them workable for people whose bodies and minds don’t work like your own.
Talk to us. Reach out to your local Center for Independent Living. Arrange meetings with disability groups, reach out to disabled Muslims especially. Look to us for guidance, not our families, our caretakers, professionals. We have been actively shunned from the community for a long time. Treating us as humans starts with talking to us as equals, fellow Muslims who want to worship together.
I am disabled. I am Muslim. I am #NotYourProp, and I refuse to be ashamed of who I am. I suggest you do the same.
*For more, check out another essay by Noor for the DVP from November 2018: Stop Killing Us: Reflections on Trans, Intersex, and Disabled Eugenics.
Noor Pervez is a community organizer who works on disability, racial, trans, queer and religious justice. He has given presentations on everything from trans folks with eating disorders to how to support queer Muslims all over the US.
He is the Accessibility Director on the board of Masjid Al Rabia, on the Muslim Youth Leadership Council, and a board member for the Trans Student Educational Resource.
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