Backhouse Lecture: “Diverse liveries: Quakers responding to disability and difference”

Jackie Leach Scully, 2024 Backhouse Lecturer

The Lecturer

Jackie Leach Scully has been involved with Quakers for over 40 years, first in the United Kingdom, then Switzerland, again in the UK and now in Australia. She has occupied a variety of roles too, from Attender to Member to Clerk of Switzerland Yearly Meeting, and served on more committees than she cares to remember. In 2002 she gave the annual Swarthmore Lecture to Britain Yearly Meeting, Playing in the Presence: Genetics, Ethics and Spirituality.

 Jackie first trained as a molecular biologist and for a number of years researched the mechanisms of cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, but then became more interested in the ethical and legal issues raised by contemporary medicine. At the University of Basel, she helped to establish the first interdisciplinary bioethics centre in Switzerland, and at Newcastle University in the UK was Executive Director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre. In 2019 she moved to Sydney to lead the Disability Innovation Institute at UNSW, where she is also Professor of Bioethics.

 Disability has shaped her family, career, personal and professional life, and her engagement with faith and spirituality. Now making her home in Australia, she hopes to share some “dissident disability thinking” with Australian Friends.

The Lecture Summary

This Backhouse lecture asks the question: what might disability, difference and normality mean for Friends in the twenty-first century?

This is a particularly crucial question today, because for the first time in human history we are developing ways to control what kind of disabilities enter into life, and which don’t. It just isn’t possible to do this responsibly if we haven’t engaged in depth with the spiritual as well as social, moral and political meanings of disability and people with disability.

Until recently, disability has most commonly been approached as a medical problem requiring a medical solution. Over the last half-century an alternative view takes disability as a form of difference where the problem (if there is one) is the mismatch between unusual bodies and the way society is organised. We’re also more aware of disability as an issue of justice and human rights. But none of these perspectives pays much attention to the spiritual encounter with impairment and disability.

In this lecture, I work from personal experience and my professional background as a bioethicist to explore how Friends are called to respond to disability and impairment. As well as taking a look at traditional and contemporary theological engagement with disability and illness, I use the lens of Quaker testimony to offer new light on issues like embodiment, vulnerability and community. I want us to consider how to “think dissidently” as we go about building a world more inclusive of all kinds of difference and diversity.

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