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.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Nothing to learn about God here...move along..?

Sometimes I have an awkward conversation with church folk.
I ask to join in, saying that there are an awful lot of autistic people, and our voices count too.
For example, some 10% of LGBT+ people are autistic.  Are we represented at the Shared Conversations on CofE LGBT matters?  No-one knows.  No-one has asked, it seems.  Maybe we are, maybe we're not.  Who can tell.

And normally there's someone who says, "Why should autistic people get a special mention? If you get a place, what about me?  After all, I have diabetes, so why don't we have a special number of places for diabetic people? Or people who enjoy going to the theatre?   We can't cater for every group, as it's just ridiculous".

Is it?  It betrays an extraordinary lack of knowledge of autism.  And of God, I'd argue.

Autistic people encounter God and faith differently.  We have a different sensory system.  We see differently.  We hear differently. We are affected by texture, smell and physical contact differently.   We process words differently.  We see people differently (often being faceblind for example, and not able to recognise folk from their faces alone).  We are rule-driven, not social-relationship-driven, and that means that our reading of the Bible is different.   We socialise differently.  We form relationships differently.  Not in 'broken ways', but ways that represent something new, something amazing to learn about.  Truly amazing.

What of God is represented in what we encounter?  What of His word can we learn anew by listening to our 'take' on the Bible?
How does the word of Scripture sound to autistic lesbian ears?
How do faith images impact on eyes that see colour and texture differently?
What is it like to live with multiple disadvantages, from birth - in church life?
Is 10% of a group 'too small' to think about including?
What do we lose by not asking, by not including?

It's tempting to see autistic people as just asking to be included in order to make a point.  In order to be a nuisance.  As some annoying group asking to be 'catered for'. But it's not that.  

It's about having something so worthwhile to contribute.  It's about us hearing something really important about how we fail to see really big groups of people  (some 300,000 of us in the country who are autistic and LGBT).   It's about who has the right to decide things for us, without asking us or consulting with us.   It's about who gets to impose pain and fear on us, quite accidentally, because they failed to ask our needs too.

No, it's not like leaving out people who are keen on hockey, or those who prefer the 8am service to the 10am service.  It's about a group of people who are routinely bullied, excluded, assaulted, marginalised, forgotten and mostly live in abject poverty.  And about a church that needs to do better than, "Well, your voice doesn't matter".  If no-one has ever listened, how do we know?

Saturday 11 July 2015


It's sometimes tough stuff, trying to encourage churches to welcome all.
Some churches are fabulous.  Their leaders are enthusiastic about learning.  They enable their teams to get good training.  They fundraise and allocate budgets to ensure that everyone can get to a service and feel valued.  We know that such churches see their congregations...and finances...increase year after year.  I am fortunate to have found several like this.  But some others...well...

I want to talk about feeling valued. What it is.  What it is not.  And about the 'othering' of people like me.  Born autistic.  Autism is a sensory processing and social communication disability, nothing to do with 'bad behaviour'.

So often, disabled people or those who live with differences are tolerated.

'Tolerate' is what you do when you let someone sit next to you... whilst you feel uncomfortable and hope they sit somewhere else....but you smile at them in a false way.  The thinking behind this is, "I am such a good Christian for allowing you near me.  After all, someone like you being in my church spoils my experience of God.  You should be thankful to be allowed here".  Had that happen a few times.
Now, the strange thing is that if it was done to them, other folk would immediately see that as intolerance.  As prejudice.  As falseness.  As fear or hate.  But it's something that folk like me are often expected to be grateful for.  I think not.

Sometimes disabled folk and others who live with differences are the subject of 'awareness raising'.  This means that we get to stand up in front of everyone and explain all the things we cannot do.  All the things that make us feel really small and really bad about ourselves.   And then, people are 'inspired' by us.  "You brave person, coming to church!"  "Wow, people like you can talk!"  "So do you live in a residential home?  Is that your carer with you?"  I've had it all over the years.  We are not friends.  We are not colleagues.  We are not equal.  We are exhibits.   

Now, the strange thing is that if this was done to them,  other folk would feel really uncomfortable.  But it's something that folk like me are expected to be grateful for.  After all, we're talking about autism now, aren't we.   Yes, yes we are.  In a way that demeans and uses me, and has no regard for the after-effects. Often I'm expected to do this for free.  As if it is a special treat for me to be allowed to talk to church people about embarrassing things and then go home feeling bad. That's not brilliant. 

Yes, people like me offer training to the outside world.  Training where we knowingly do stand up in front of many others and explain our 'deficits'.  Our difficulties.  Training where we are an example to be assessed, a thing to be stared at.  And after each session, we go home to our families and friends and partners and children...and try to restore our sense of self-worth.  Important stuff, awareness-raising. But it's nothing to do with valuing us.

What does valuing us look like?  What does it feel like?  What does it sound like?
It feels like we are seen as people, as colleagues, as friends.  It feels like people want us to sit next to them.  It feels like we're offered the same chances as others to show our strengths.  It feels like we are enabled to feel safe and supported, of course - but in consensual ways that ask us.  In quiet, invisible, respectful ways.  Training like that happens in many places, and it's always a joy to work with such groups.

It doesn't look at us as a cost burden.  As a time-waste.  As a 'danger'  (frankly we are no more likely to be dangerous than you are).   It doesn't think that Church happens 'elsewhere' for us.  There are no churches for autistic people.  None.  It's like a thing where Jesus got his team to hand round food to the 5000 and left all the autistic ones hungry and thirsty.   Do you think that's what happened?  Me neither.

We are God's loved children too. Valuing us doesn't allocate the budget and team and support to everyone but us... and then claim no money, no spare time.  It doesn't involve ignoring bullying of us, or blaming us for the bullying.  It doesn't involve laughing at us or using us as some sort of freak show.  Or encouraging others not to help us.  Or encouraging others not to talk to us, by pretending we are a nuisance.  We're not exhibits or dangers.  Truly we are not.

We are your friends.  We love Jesus and are Christians who want to share our love and care with others, just like you do.  We have families, just like you do.  We have passionate interests, just like you do.  The church should not get to pretend that we are 'other'.  Not in front of God we're not.

It's our church too.  It belongs to God, and God says yes.    That's a reality that every church already has to come to terms with.  Plenty of us are willing to help.  But know the cost, please.  And value the time and exhaustion and despair that it causes, especially when so often the response is 'go away', a budget-withholding, silence-enduring, "We don't want your sort here".

You are loved.  We are not your enemy.  Learn about our gifts to the church and to God.  Value us for who we are, God's children, made in God's image.