Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Equal Treatment is Not Equal in Effect

In faith settings, sometimes someone says to me, "Oh but we treat everyone the same, so that's evidence that we're fair". 

It isn't fair to treat everyone the same.  Let me take an example:

Disability advisers.  Often in church groups, someone has the idea that a region needs a disability adviser.  Not such a bad idea in itself. After all, 40% of parishioners are disabled.  The Archbishop has, wisely, said that we need to focus on disability as a key issue.  In the CofE, for example, there are an average of 11,000 disabled parishioners turning up to church in every Diocese.

Disability is a big subject with big money.  It's why disability advisers to industry are paid a very good sum and are properly accredited after extensive training.  Access is a legal liability, the same as it is a legal liability to have fire extinguishers and buildings insurance.  The court awards for failing on disability access top £1 million a case in London, for example.  Not because disabled people are nasty sorts who like suing people.  But because they are already often struggling to cope in unfair systems and inaccessible buildings.  Already perhaps unwell or in pain.  And making their lives so hard that they suffer further injury or distress - carelessly - is not OK.  The Courts are quite clear on this.  Places have a legal duty of care, even if no disabled people attend.  It has to be planned for in advance, in an expert and considered way.  That's the law, and churches have to follow it to the same standards as shops.  Well, they do.  I don't make the law.  But I do think that's right.  Jesus was very loving towards disabled people and spent so much time with them.  It should never ever be a burden to include the marginalised at God's table.

Disability is also complex.  There are many major disabilities, all with different needs.  Almost none of them have to be expensive to sort out.   But you need people who understand autism, learning disability, mobility issues, visual impairment, hearing impairment, mental health, coeliac disease, epilepsy and a good few other more major ones.  Proper training skills, expertise in writing materials, knowledge of buildings access needs for each disability.  It takes a whole team working together to do a proper job for a region or Diocese.  It needs someone who can put together that team and communicate really well with every department.  Properly enabled and with proper authority.

Often, regions decide that the right person for the job is a solitary disabled person, working a couple of hours a month.    Then they hunt around for cash to fund it, and decide they can't see any immediately.  So the next idea is that the person will work for free.

"But that's not fair!", some people will say.  "Oh yes it is", they respond, "After all, we don't pay some of our clergy".

There it is.  Right there.  The thing where equal treatment is not equal.

Disabled people already, as a group, live in poverty.   In some disability groups, only 5% are in full time employment.  They already mostly live with pain or loss of function.  They already live with bullying, marginalisation and abuse.  They already mostly live on the margins of church, often unable to access it.  They may well have children who also live with disability in a society that doesn't adapt for it.   And some turn to this extremely disadvantaged group and say, in effect, "If you want to go to churches, you can work for free to make them accessible".

Equal treatment is not the same as fair treatment.  At all.

Be very wary about asking disabled people to work for free.  Especially if asking that they have no employment rights, no proper ongoing structured industry-standard training from qualified experts. A day at the start of the job isn't it.  No insurance cover?  No access to a support network?  No access to counselling or spiritual direction?   Especially if there is no planning for what happens if it goes wrong....if someone sues.  Who gets sued?  The church?  The Diocese?  The disabled volunteer?  I've seen that happen.

It's not a couple of hours a week to do the job.  We're asking people to go to some 400 churches per Diocese and train hundreds of staff to legally-accountable standards.

The church is not a corporation with a lot of cash. But if we can find money for fire extinguishers and insurance without complaint, and understand that those help save people from injury, do we need to make disabled people work for free...and claim that this is their Christian duty?  

Or is it our duty to make sure that the most vulnerable, the most marginalised in our churches are not taken advantage of as a group?  Even accidentally?

It's a justice issue.  We need to think very carefully what we, as a faith group, say about the worth of especially marginalised people.