22 June 2012

Are we disability aware?

by Fiona Sherwin

This past Sunday was the annual Disability Awareness Sunday. Were you aware of this?

The purpose of Disability Awareness Sunday is just as the name suggests – bringing an awareness that there are people in our communities with disabilities, both seen and unseen, sitting in our congregations and living in our neighbourhoods. Its purpose is to help us to see that people with disabilities have a valued place. I want to suggest that this is more than looking around and noticing that perhaps there is someone in a wheelchair or someone who has an intellectual disability, or someone who is blind sitting in on a Sunday church meeting; what it does is invite active participation for all of us with people with disabilities.

Why are we so often content to let someone with a disability sit in our congregations and not give opportunities to participate as we would give others? We are happy for them to sit, sometimes we are happy to help them find a place to be, but I think that is often where our interaction with them ends. Are we aware that they are people with interests and gifts like ours who, if given the opportunity, would jump at the chance to participate and serve any way they can? Now I know for some of us, there is a fear of conversing with people with disabilities. What if we can’t understand them? What will we say to them? What if they ask us to do something that pushes us outside our comfort zones? What if we say something that is offensive? It is a real, genuine fear, but one that must be overcome.

I guess I had a privileged upbringing – by that I mean that I was introduced to people with intellectual disabilities as a little girl. My mother cared for them. I used to get to go and play with them and they were my friends. As a teenager, I participated in the Christian Ministry with Disabled Camps, and then began caring for people as a caregiver when I was in my final year of school. To me, people with disabilities have the same value as everyone and bring a richness that we are often bereft of. I think that when we allow ourselves to be open to experience life with people with disabilities, we are all better off.

John Swinton, in an article entitled “Building a church for strangers”, reflects upon his friendship with Stephen, a young man with profound learning disabilities. He describes the joy Stephen has when worshipping God during a church service in the chapel at the hospital where he lives. He describes his sadness as he helps Stephen find a new place of worship after moving from the hospital to a residential community. When they visit a new church, Stephen worships freely in his love for Christ. But he is loud. He is awkward. John is asked to take Stephen out from the church meeting, or perhaps go to the Sunday School area where Stephen’s needs can be better catered for. I wonder what it would have been like if the church members had been willing to participate in the wonder of Stephen’s joy found in “Jeeshush”?

So I ask again, are we willing, as Swinton suggests in his article, to make places of acceptance, affirmation and belonging for all? Are we willing to learn just as much, if not more, from people with disabilities in living life with them, than they will learn from us? I think that if we truly are, only then will we truly see the body of Christ that is described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

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