Recent changes in thought and the introduction of disability-specific legislation across Europe have challenged traditional understandings of the nature of and response to disability.
One important aspect that receives little attention is the presence and impact of disability within faith communities. Perhaps the assumption is that this is ‘merely’ a pastoral issue.
However, deeper reflection reveals that the way in which disability is defined and perceived by the Church can significantly impact upon the well-being of disabled people and their loved ones, challenging faith communities to examine their response to Christ’s command to love God and love our neighbour.
Lobbying against discrimination and for equality, inclusion and access are the modus operandi of the contemporary disability movement which has had great success in terms of achieving welcome change in areas such as access to employment, housing, education and healthcare.
Disability policy and legislation has contributed significantly and positively to the improvement of the lives of people with disabilities. It has increased awareness of needs, promoted consultation and cooperation between service providers and service users, and instilled confidence in people with disabilities who have been enabled to find their own voices.
It has been successful in consciousness-raising about the needs of disabled citizens and helped replace despondency with hope for the future. People with disabilities are living fuller lives and our society is better and richer for it all.
This disability ‘settlement’ as it might be termed is not a panacea for all the struggles that people with disabilities continue to face however. Living life to the full also involves developing the kind of freely-given and life-giving friendships that provide an antidote to loneliness for example, a problem which is attracting much attention from mental health professionals recently.
The law can force institutions to make their premises accessible but no one can force those inside them to embrace the person with a disability as a friend once she gains that access.
People with a range of disabilities continue to experience the problem of loneliness and friendliness in spite of the introduction of a raft of legislation because it simply is not possible to legislate for friendship or for the shaping of the sorts of ‘communities of belonging’ wherein there is at least the possibility of addressing the problem of loneliness.
For the Church, Christ is the starting point for any discussion about disability. Christians have to take seriously their call to love God and to act as brother and sister to ‘the other’, made in the image and likeness of God.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, reminds us that authentic openness to the other is risky as it involves a surrender by us of our status as we encounter the ‘vulnerable’ other.
True friendship between people with and without disabilities is not based on superficial accounts of similarities in interests or temperaments. Rather, it is a ‘mystery’ reflecting the common origin of all in God. It blurs the differences between persons so that, as Vanier puts it, we will not know who is helping whom.
The wider Christian community can be said to be ‘living the Gospel’ authentically when people with disabilities, their families and friends are not marginal to the life of the Church but are at its very core, shaping the heart of the Church so that all members can be said to be living life in its fullness as Christ intended. Transformation of the heart through an encounter between that which is sacred in all of us is what is needed.
For the everyday practice of the Church at the local level, disability cannot be just one among many pastoral initiatives allocated to this or that committee. All parishes should try to see that, irrespective of ability, created human persons ‘belong’ with each other in a relationship of communion. Nor is this relationship one-sided. People with and without disabilities grow in love for each other when they encounter one another as brothers and sisters, loved into being by God.
Parishes do not just ask what they can do ‘for’ people with disabilities, but rather seek to build on the mutual transformation that follows a loving encounter between persons, irrespective of ability or disability.
If the Church can reimagine its approach to people with disabilities less in terms of inclusion and more in terms of mutual belonging and ‘communion’ where each gives and each receives, then we can begin to life fully as God intended us to live it.
The Living Fully event being held this June at the Pontifical Council for Culture and the LUMSA University in Rome presents an opportunity for theologians, pastoral workers, people with disabilities and their families, clergy and laity to tell their stories and explore what it means to ‘live fully’.
During both the conference and the symposium, and also more informally at social events that have been organised, participants will consider questions as diverse as the current advances in genetic technology and its arguably eugenic side-effects, the importance of catechesis in schools as a tool for learning about disability and how the problem of loneliness challenges the Church to be a place of belonging for all.
They will explore the extent to which the cry for active participation and friendship, often expressed by people with disabilities and their families is theologically appreciated, and how the Church responds to this cry in a way that offers hope and promise.